Does God learn? How does that fit in with our theology? What would it mean if he does? What does it mean if he doesn’t?
These are some of the questions posed towards the end of John Hull’s classic What Prevents Christian Adults from Learning? (1985). It’s an interesting, if slightly frustrating book (parts of it are rather abstract and over-generalise). Some of it, of course, is rather out-of-date, but parts of it remain thought-provoking and challenging, particularly the final chapter.
Hull works through what the disciplines of sociology, cultural anthropology, psychology and philosophy might be able to tell us about why so many Christian adults aren’t learners and then concludes with a chapter on the theology of learning. As part of this, he argues that the conception of God the Father not learning, and possibly not even Jesus learning during the incarnation, has damaged our ability to being open to learning. For example, he explores whether or not Jesus was conceived as having learnt anything as a child. It’s worth thinking what our reaction to this question is. One answer is that of kenosis (which Hull mentions, and which I’ve blogged about). Hull also suggests that this influences whether people see Jesus as learning as well teaching when he was a child in the Temple (Luke 2:41-52). I’d add to this that it’s difficult to understand Jesus as not learning given verse 52:
And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and people.
Hull then suggests a theological understanding of how we could conceive God as a learner. It’s rather long, but is worth quoting (p224f):
The difficulty which this presents lies in the thought that God is in time and that God changes. There is no doubt that the view that God is a learner does mean that in certain senses he is in time and that in certain respects he does change. But the senses in which he changes and is time do not suggest any diminution of his beauty, power and excellence as God.
To say that God is in time does not necessarily mean that God is exhaustively in time. In the case of mere human experience, being in time does not mean that in various senses we do not also transcend time. We are thus not wholly in time, but transcend it partially through memory, imagination and reason. We are thus in the image of God, in that while being within time we also transcend time.
God’s transcendence over time is vastly more perfect than ours, just as God’s presence within time is vastly more perfect than ours. We are in time in various ways. We experience time. This means that time is in us. There is no reason why God should not be thought of as both the creator of time and the perfect experiencer of time. To experience time is to take time seriously, to know time as it really is, to be on the inside of time. God is the lover of time, for he does not hate anything which he has made, and he enters into the experience of time not only in the incarnation but in all of his divine experiences as being the creator of time.
To be a learner is to take both time and persons seriously.
Hull then develops an argument about God ‘taking up’ people into his experience, which I’m not sure is a helpful way of looking at things, but he goes on (p226):
If things really do change, then God, who knows these things, also changes. His omniscience never varies for he always knows fully and perfectly everything that there is to be know, and his love never wavers or varies, for he always perfectly and fully loves everything that there is to love.
Therefore, Hull argues, this understanding can encourage us, as Christian learners, to learn and to change. So (p227):
The changes in God are only from knowledge to more knowledge, from love extended perfectly to this person to a love extended perfectly to these newly born persons and so on.
There is a sense in which we may think that God learns not less than we do, but more, since he is always completely open to all the freshness of this new world, whereas we are always slow to react, reluctant to learn, and inclined to distort reality. To some extent, we may say that our learning is our act of repentance, but this is never true of God’s learning. Learning, however, does not come to an end when there is no further need for repentance. Our knowledge, unlike that of God, is in part, and some day we shall know as perfectly as we are known. But even then, faith, hope and love will endure, and so therefore will learning, both human and divine. To learn from free persons is to love them, not seek to control them, and to learn fully and openly without pain or inhibition or fear is to relate to other persons in faith and hope and love. The God who hopes for this world is also the God who learns. His perfection and his unity as the Hopeful One, the learner and the lover, is part of his faithfulness towards his world.
Hull’s overall theology is rather more liberal than I agree with, and he seems to be more impressed with process philosophy and theology than I am. However, I think that it answers some of the very helpful questions that open theism is asking. I also think that this understanding of God is a very interesting and helpful one.