Analytic Theology,  God,  Philosophical Theology

Can God Marvel?

God is marvelous. He causes in his worshipers a sense of wonder, awe and amazement. But does God feel the same? Can he marvel at himself?

At the very least marveling implies finding something to be beyond conceptual reach. It appears to be connected with mystery. Sometimes our marveling can be because we do not have the concepts to understand what we see. A magic trick can be like this. We cannot understand how it is done even though we might be sure that, if someone explained the trick, we would understand it. A trick looses its mystery when we know how it is done.

In other cases we marvel even when we do understand the relevant facts. We marvel at beauty in this way. A scene found in nature may, in principle, be fully conceptually comprehended, but yet have certain features that are beyond the grasp of concepts. This may even be true of the magic trick. Even when someone has explained how it is done we may yet marvel at the ingenuity of the trick or the courage of the magician (who may place himself in danger).

Can God feel “wow!”?

Marveling appears to imply something that God could not have. I have often compared omniscience to a kind of disorder that robs a person of the fun of playing hide and seek. I realize this may have wide reaching consequences. What if God could have no fun? Surely he knows all the punch lines to all the jokes. Does this mean he cannot laugh? Similarly, our ability to wonder appears to be dependent on our inability to fully understand. We marvel at things because we are not omniscient. God, being omniscient, seems to lack a crucial quality. Nothing is beyond his conceptual reach.

Yet, when we consider God, we often consider his intrinsic marvelousness. Surely, we imagine, God must marvel at himself. What would the alternative be? Does he find himself to be dull? Is he bored? And if he has no intrinsic wonder, how would he be able to create creatures that do find him wonderful? There would be no wonder in God, not even the possibility of wonder. I suppose he might be able to know what wonder is even though he is not acquainted with it, but this still sounds strange. Trinitarian theology stresses the mutual delight in the Trinity. It would somehow be at odds with this idea if Father found Son to be as expected and no more.

William Wainwright notes that Karl Rahner thought that while God knows every proposition about himself (and everything that he creates) he nonetheless acknowledges a kind of mystery about himself.

Wainwright claims that there is a distinction between epistemological mystery and ontological mystery. Epistemological mystery is when concepts, though in principle are available, are not actually present in the subject. In principle, we suppose, the conceptual apparatus is available in order to comprehend the Trinity if only to God. Whether or not we ever gain the concepts to comprehend the Trinity does not mean that no concepts are available. This is the kind of mystery we experience when we watch a magic trick. 
Ontological mystery, on the other hand, implies that concepts are in principle unavailable. No concept can fully express an ontological mystery.[1] The ontological kind of mystery, then, is analogous to a scene of beauty in nature. While fully comprehensible, given infinite conceptual understanding, is still somehow beyond the ability of concepts to express and that’s what makes it marvelous.

Even if God fully understands himself such that, for him, there is no epistemic mystery there might still be ontological mystery such that he finds himself to be marvelous. This need not imply a lack of knowledge in God since God would have no epistemic mystery.

[1] William Wainwright, “Theology and Mystery,” The Oxford Handbook of Philosophical Theology eds. Flint and Rea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 95.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.