IF JEALOUSY IS A DEFECT...
Can an All-Good God Be Jealous?

January-February 1990By Charles Taliaferro

Charles Taliaferro is Assistant Professor of Philosophy of St. Olaf College in Minnesota.

“…For I the Lord Your God am a jealous God….” — Exodus 20:5

How is it possible for an all-good, omnip­otent, omniscient God to be jealous? At least two problems arise with supposing that God is ever jealous. The first is that jealousy involves experiencing fear of a loss and it is not possi­ble for an all-powerful, limitless being to experience fear. The second is that jealousy is a vice and God is all-good, without any defect whatever. Gabriele Taylor has recently argued that “since envy and jealousy are vices, nei­ther ought to be felt.” If jealousy ought not be felt, God ought not feel it. Immanuel Kant held that “jealousy is natural, but that there is no excuse for cultivating it.” If Kant is correct, then presumably there is no excuse for cultivat­ing jealousy on the supernatural level either.

The first difficulty with supposing that God is ever jealous is the least worrisome. Christians believe God has given over to the created order free will and partial inde­pendence. Not everything is under the control of God’s direct intentions because one of God’s intentions is that creatures exercise their own creative powers. When I voluntarily elect to do evil, I am the agent, not God. Given this picture of the cosmos, it makes perfect sense that God, who is all-good, would have compassionate, concerned regard for how we exercise our power. Even if we imagine that God as a Spirit is incapable of fear as a sensa­tion, with its bodily rush of adrenaline and faster heartbeat, we can imagine God pro­foundly disapproving and sorrowing over the world. Not all jealousy need involve bodily fear. Concerned, passionate regard for some loss can suffice.

The moral objection to supposing God to be jealous is more serious. Jealousy appears to be a corrosive emotion that typically leads to ill. It is not listed among the classic seven deadly sins, but it certainly seems friendly with most of them. Jealousy leads to anger and envy — not to mention revenge. It is self­-centered. I cannot be jealous unless I have self-referential, self-involved feelings. Jealousy is often fueled by lust and avarice. There is nothing wrong with being concerned about losing a valued good, a relationship, say, but jealousy introduces a useless layer of posses­siveness and self-protection. The jealousy of God as portrayed in tradition and represented in Christian art and theology may seem vi­cious. The jealousy of God appears to be an expression of despotism; God demands our worship and obedience. It seems vain to demand that others worship you, and this is precisely what God demands. The supposed jealousy of God leads us naturally to think that God is also envious. Surely an all-good God should not be thought of along any of these lines.

Actually, there is a healthy form of jeal­ousy as distinct from one that is malign. Jealousy, whether it be proper or improper, involves concerned, passionate regard (whether this is expressed in fear, anxiety, worry, attentive concern, or disap­proval) for the loss of some valued good which the jealous person thinks he is entitled to. But my jealousy is improper or malign when some of the following conditions hold: (1) My fear of the loss is unjustified, irrational. Imagine that I am always feeling threatened for no evident reason. I may fail to trust you when trust has been well earned. (2) Jealousy is also defective when it stems from an un­justified notion of what I am entitled to. I may value your friendship, but I might not have any claim to you. (3) Jealousy is also malign when it either stems from or leads to the oth­er vices mentioned above: vanity, hostile an­ger, revenge, spite, envy, avarice, and lust. Jealousy is dearly destructive when it involves a cloying overprotectiveness which dominates and suffocates.


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