The Uncontrolling Love of God (Part 1)

Thomas Jay Oord has become one of my favorite theologians and philosophers in recent years. I first came into contact with Oord with his 2009 book Divine Grace and Emerging Creation (Wipf and Stock) and realized we had quite a bit in common. First, we’re both Nazarenes (probably more broadly, Wesleyans who lean in the Nazarene tradition). Second, we both fancy a position of open theology, though I’m less committed to the term at the moment. Third, we’re best friends…just kidding.  But I do get a footnote in his most recent book (p 113), so that pretty much means we’re blood brothers.

oord book

Oord’s most recent book, and what looks to be the ultimate culmination in his love series (Defining Love, The Nature of Love), is The Uncontrolling Love of God (IVP: 2015). For those that know Oord’s work, this book explores in much greater detail and depth Oord’s theology of kenosis and what we do with the question of evil. How does one speak of God’s love when, at the end of the day, evil is allowed to exist throughout the world. For those that know my story, you’ll know that Oord’s book serves not just as a theological reflection but a deeply personal one. And as one who has since surveyed almost every major theological and social response to evil, there is a lot in Oord’s writing that is to be commended and put forward. As such, I’ll be working through Oord’s book over the next three posts.

Evil is, as N.T. Wright put it, still a four letter word. What does that mean? It means that evil is not a philosophical category. It is a reality and the danger in treating it, as some thinkers have done, as a purely philosophical category redefines it into a problem to be solved rather than wrestled with experientially. We need stories. For those that experience pain and evil, how one talks about it can never be divorced from our stories, our contexts, and our feelings. In fact, defining evil as a philosophical category is one of the ways that I think evil intentionally distracts us from engaging it. This is why I am glad to see where Oord starts off in chapter one. He starts off with stories. This is not an appeal to emotion so much as it is a recognition that you can’t demarcate evil as a thing from what is experienced. The ways in which I dealt with the question of evil before losing B. and the ways that I did after have been entirely shaped around that event. There is no “objective” lens by which evil can be talked about. It can only be talked about so long as it is relevant to the actual life we live (just as one cannot talk about good and beautiful things without knowing what that looks like in real life).

Oord’s emphasis on the experience of evil brings about several questions which ultimately boil down to this: “How can we make sense of God in light of the vast amount of evil there is in the world?” Oord critiques, though he deals with this more later, positions that suggest that evil is necessary or that this world really isn’t so bad after all. Good exists, yes. But I agree with Oord. One is hard pressed to square the prevalence and amount of evil that exists (along with its randomness) and traditional notions of sovereignty. And, indeed, can we really say that certain evils are necessary for the good? Can I tell the mother who birthed a still born child that her baby’s death was necessary to get the most good out of this world as possible? Can I tell those being swept away by the Indian Ocean in 2004 that their death’s were divinely decreed? This brings me back to Roger Olson’s suggestion that our approach towards evil, even on a philosophical level, must face the gates of Auchwitz.

Chapter two is a bit geeky but extremely important. Oord, who is also a philosopher of science, wrestles with randomness and determinism in the cosmos and what implications this has in our view of how the world works. One of the implications that science (especially quantum physics) brings and which theologians need to wrestle with is the fact that this world is both orderly and random. We cannot continue to exist as if the implications of the world have no bearing on how we conceive of our questions about time and freedom. If the world truly is, at some level, chaotic, we have to accept that rather than dismiss it out of hand because it’s a bit messy. There is tension in the whole chance and necessity game, of course, and the challenge is to accept the truth of both facts without rejecting one in favor of the other (as theologians and scientists often do). The danger in relying too much on personal autonomy is that one ends up living as if nothing is determined and as if everything is free. But this implies chaos. The problem with assuming (as both many atheists and theological determinists do) that the universe is completely determined, is that you have no room for responsibility, no room for true and genuine good, and no room for evil to exist.

In Chapter 3, Oord turns his attention to the question of freedom. Here he defines a bit further what the implications of this all means. Veterans of the Determinism vs. Free Will debate (if I can be bold enough to boil it down to those terms) will know what Oord means when he speaks of Libertarianism (also Ron Paul fans will know what this means!). As Oord states, “Libertarian free will says genuine freedom is irreconcilable with being fully determined to act in a particular way. Libertarian-free-will supporters are in- compatiblists because they believe we cannot be simultaneously free and entirely determined by other forces” (59). Central to this, primarily, is agent choice and secondarily it relies on possibilities. This defines freedom in a way that is against whatever freedom both theological or atheistic determinism hold to (which, IMO, is not really freedom at all).

Oord also brings in his definition of genuine evil. This is going to be critical in moving forward with his idea of kenosis for ultimately while one might be able to respond (as the classic Arminian does) to evil with moral freedom, one still has to deal with the evil and suffering that happens and has happened throughout history outside of freedom of choice. This presents a major problem for the Christian. Though philosophers (i.e. most notably in the evangelical world Alvin Plantinga) have often tried to find a logical way out, we really are still yet to make much sense of the problem of gratuitous/genuine evil. As Oord states, “a loving God would not just refrain from causing genuine evil. A loving God would prevent it, if possible. The God who could have prevented a genuinely evil event is culpable for failing to do so. A morally culpable individual—even if divine—has not loved per- fectly. A loving God would not allow genuine evil that is preventable.” That statement goes against the grain of traditional Christian views of God’s relationship to evil. But it is a serious question that needs to be grappled with if we’re going to claim anything about God’s benevolence, his love, and his power.

We’ll see in Part 2 of this review what Oord chooses to do with this.