The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence by Thomas Jay Oord
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The world of Nazarene higher education was rocked not long ago by news of the controversial dismissal of Thomas Jay Oord from his teaching position at Northwest Nazarene University. Though I don’t know Oord personally, I know he was generally regarded as a respected and active theologian inside and outside the denomination and someone who was doing important work. He also had a certain amount of controversy about him, primarily as he was considered a leader in the field of process theology.
Not knowing much about him or about process theology in general, I was anxious to read his most recent work, which is an accessible and non-academic introduction to this school of theology and in particular an explanation of how Oord’s particular flavor of process theology can provide what he sees as a solution to the problem of evil. In the work, it’s clear that Oord has read and engaged extensively with wide fields of contemporary theology across denominational traditions as well as the work of scientists at the forefront of the dialogue between theology and science. If you want to know what Oord in particular and process theology in general are about, this is a good place to start, as Oord’s discussions engage much of the current literature and his extensive footnotes give lots of directions of various places to go to learn more.
The goal of Oord’s work is to apply his brand of process theology to the issue of evil in the world. That bad things happen is undeniable. Oord calls this “genuine evil” and begins the book with several examples, from a random death caused by a rock through a windshield to the story of a woman who was raped after her family was murdered. Any theology, Oord maintains, that attempts to say things about the nature of God needs to give an account of these evils, and Oord outlines several possible responses. Any response, however, that says that God is all-powerful and could have prevented these things but did not, Oord believes, leaves God culpable for the evil and is thus unacceptable. If one has the power to prevent evil and the knowledge that it will happen but allows it to happen anyway, Oord argues, one is in some respect responsible for the evil.
Here is where Oord’s process theology comes into play. In his brand of process theology, God knows all that can possibly be known in principle. However, because Oord believes modern science has shown randomness and uncertainty as fundamental properties of the universe, the future is in principle unknowable. God does not know the future. He is presently omniscient, in that He knows all that happens in the unfolding of time, but He does not know the future because it does not yet exist. He experiences the unfolding of time along with Creation. In a sense, He learns as certain potentialities close and others become actualized.
This takes care of the foreknowledge issue in the problem of evil. God simply does not know for sure what is going to happen. But what about the divine power to prevent evil? Here is where the crux of Oord’s argument lies, as outlined in the title of his book: Oord argues that the primary, essential, and logically prior characteristic of God is uncontrolling love. This means it is always God’s nature to give freedom to his creation—from animate, intelligent beings to inanimate rocks governed by the law-like properties of the universe. Everything that God does flows from this kenotic, self-emptying love that preserves the freedom of all creation. Because God cannot deny his own nature, He cannot violate the freedom of either a person bent on evil or the trajectory of an errant stone. It’s not simply that He choses not to intercede (in which case He would still be culpable in Oord’s eyes). It is instead that the nature of God means He cannot.
If this feels like a risky, limited vision of God, it is. But it’s not one that’s completely without precedent in the Christian tradition. The old analogy of God creating a rock so big He can’t lift it points to the long-held Christian belief that God cannot do things that are logically impossible. Oord believes what someone might think is “lost” in this view of God is more than made up for by replacing a God who seems to allow evil with a deeper knowledge of the essential aspect of God—love.
To some extent, this is a view I can sympathize with and find much attractive about, especially the portions that deal with God’s nature in respect to human freedom. But there are places where I remain unconvinced, primarily related to ideas about God’s foreknowledge or lack thereof, Oord’s definition of “genuine evil,” the perception of God we’re left with, and a few other issues that Oord may clarify in later work or perhaps has already addressed elsewhere.
The first issue is something I’ve never understood, and perhaps someone can explain it to me at more length. I’ve never understood how divine (or any) foreknowledge is incompatible with free will. The explanation usually goes that knowing exactly what someone is going to do would mean they didn’t have free will in making the decision. But consider this: if Doc Brown followed me around for a week (undetected) observing and recording everything I did and then got into his DeLorean and went back in time a week, he would now have foreknowledge of every choice that I made. But would that mean I didn’t have free choice when I made them? I don’t understand how his knowledge would be incompatible with my freedom.
I’m also not convinced by the concept of a God that experiences time along with creation. For one thing, I’m not ready to give up on the concept of time travel, nor am I as married to a forward-only causality as Oord is. (I’ve even published a story about causality working the other direction.) Oord believes science indicates this is the way the world works, but I don’t think science has shut the door on the world working otherwise. Indeed, relativity shows that time is as fluid as space itself, that the geometry of space causes time to flow at different rates in different locations. I’m not sure how this maps onto Oord’s view of a God learning in time along with us. (And, as a friend pointed out, this view of time is inherently Western. Other cultures view time in very different ways.) More generally though, if God’s essential nature is uncontrolling love, I’m not sure we need to give up on his extra-temporal nature to maintain Oord’s central argument.
Too much, in my mind, is given up if we give up the concept of a God who transcends time. For one thing, I like don’t like the idea of a God that can in principle be surprised or a God that functions like a divine super-computer, reduced to simply making (very good) predictions about the future. I like to think at least someone understands and foresees the intricacies of my own personality moment to moment, or the personality of unborn kids. I’m also rather married to the idea of certain events (like the crucifixion, for instance, which the Orthodox like to talk about as happening in some sense “before the foundation of the world”) as being eternal and having backward as well as forward consequences.
I also have concerns with the way Oord defines “genuine evil,” which touches on his ontology of choice. In essence, he’s classified the genuine physical harm that comes about from an errant rock with that coming from the choices made by murders and rapists. I don’t think an accidental death can be a “genuine evil” in the same way as the result of a conscious choice can. I want to maintain a distinction between the two, even though both in my mind can have “genuinely bad” or “genuinely harmful” results. Obviously an explanation of providence needs to encompass both, but Oord seems to be on very different ground philosophically when talking about the rock versus the rapists.
In the case of the human actors, I think I can agree with him: if God’s essential nature is uncontrolling love, then it would result in a logical inconsistency for God to violate His own nature to override the freedom of choice in humans—even to prevent genuine harm. The evil that results from human actions or inactions are the responsibility of humans alone; God is not culpable.
But what about harm that results from the law-like processes of nature, including random actions that result in death and destruction (like a tornado or a stone through someone’s windshield)? Here choice doesn’t seem to be an issue, and Oord recognizes that there’s still a lot to be worked out in this respect. But he claims that because the law-like regularities in the world are themselves a form of grace, God cannot withdraw His presence or override the freedom inherent in physical processes themselves because to do so would also violate His own nature of kenotic love.
This is a bit harder for me to follow, though I again resonate with the idea that the spirit-filled presence of God throughout the physical order means that everything is sustained by God and that law-like regularities (Oord is careful to not call them laws of nature, being sensitive to contemporary philosophy of science) are themselves a form of God’s grace. But in maintaining that the freedom to self-organize is an essential property of nature and that there’s a continuous spectrum of choice from humans down to much simpler forms of life, he has to assume a teleological evolution to the universe in some sense. I don’t know all the implications here, but it seems like Oord is on much shakier ground.
I also wonder if Oord’s prioritizing of self-emptying, uncontrolling love as the essential and logically prior nature of God doesn’t overlay a Western, contemporary view of love on God in the same way that his linear conception of time does. Would this view of love have been one understood throughout history, or even in non-Western contexts today? Note that Oord’s version of process theology does not say that God is evolving; the traits of God remain eternal. But the concept of love seems to be one that has changed throughout history, which makes it potentially problematic to posit as God’s essential nature, at least love qualified in the terms that Oord gives it.
Finally, it seemed like the door was wide open at several points throughout Oord’s account to bring in trinitarian theology, or to at least acknowledge that his work has important implications for our understanding of the Trinity as well as the Incarnation. In his work, however, these implications seemed to take a backseat to Oord’s logical grapplings with qualifying God’s properties.
The idea of a God who suffers along with us, who takes risks, and who is defined and perhaps even bounded by His own self-emptying love is a strong one. I think Oord is on the forefront of important thought on these ideas in evangelical circles. I can follow him a good distance along this road. But especially as relates to issues of the nature of God in time I remain unconvinced, and in questions of God’s presence in the physical world and the implications it has for physical harms (as opposed to those from human or creaturely choice) I need more explanation.