Tag Archives: theodicy

The Uncontrolling Love of God

The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of ProvidenceThe 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.

The Farthest Shore

The Farthest Shore (The Earthsea Cycle, #3)The Farthest Shore by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Earthsea books are old. The Farthest Shore, third in the trilogy, was published in 1972. But they’re old like a healthy tree is old, like a house with character. You can tell their age in their strength, in the slow, steady pace of the language, in the deep rootedness of the characters. Le Guin writes in an age that harkens more to Tolkien and Lewis, maybe even Peake, than to Jordan or the guy who writes the Game of Thrones books. The pacing is slow, the action is sparse, and the world-building is one of scattered lands and horizons as opposed to complex politics or equally complex magical systems. They take a while to get into.

I found this to be true for all three of these novels. They don’t grab you in the first or even the second or the third chapter. You move into them, charmed by the language but perhaps a bit—not quite bored, but certainly not enthralled. But you’ve heard them spoken of before in the same sentence with Lewis and Tolkien, and you want to find out why. Le Guin sets the stage slowly, introduces the characters, paints a world that always smells strongly of the sea and feels of the vague presence of dragon wings beating just over the horizon. And then by about halfway through you’re hooked and the remainder of the book feels like a painting, like a journey, like the things that solid fantasy is supposed to feel like—not an action movie, not a soap opera. But a tale.

Ged, now the Archmage of Roke, is once again at the center of this third tale. (I assumed the last of Earthsea, as these books were presented as a trilogy. Checking Wikipedia, however, I see that apart from a collection of short stories set in Earthsea there are an additional two novels.) I’ve written on the previous two volumes before, where I stated the volume one, A Wizard of Earthsea, could be generalized as being about wisdom, about finding maturity and true friendship. Ged grows up. Volume two, The Tombs of Atuan, is about redemption and mercy. Ged saves a slave from a life of darkness and servitude. This last volume is about despair and faith.

I think I’ve also said this in writing about the first two volumes: these books are great books because they touch the springs of truth, of something deep and real and beautiful. The best fantasy, I think, tells us something about the real world. In this novel, Ged and a young servant set off to find the source of lifelessness and despair leaking into the land of Earthsea. They travel to islands where joy and art are forgotten, where the wizards no longer know the words of magic that give them their power. (Magic, for Le Guin in Earthsea, is knowing the true names of things.) They find a wizard whose lust for life unending has upset the balance between life and death and has dragged along others who follow out of fear of death.

And Le Guin uses this stage of magic and journeying to pose what may be one of the central questions in our own art and theology and philosophy: is life the source of meaning or is it all an illusion, simply words that we give to things because we cannot stand the idea that they may have no meaning at all? Ged’s servant faces this in the course of their journeying, and he lets the despair overwhelm him. The questions he ask are ones that we all face—if we’re truly awake—at some point in our lives:

“ . . . he knew in his heart that reality was empty; without life or warmth or color or sound: without meaning. There were no heights or depths. All this lovely play of form and light and color on the sea and in the eyes of men, was no more than that: a playing of illusions on the shallow void.
They passed, and there remained the shapelessness and the cold. Nothing else.”

Again this despair and this craving for safety and assurance, for life without end and without danger, the character of Ged is a voice of hope and faith. But this is not a pat, safe, Sunday-school answer. This is a realization that life cannot exist outside of the reality of death, that the two are opposite sides of the same coin, and that we cannot understand either apart from the context of the other. Ged’s answer to his servant’s fear is poignant and true:

“There is no safety, and there is no end. The word must be heard in silence; there must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.”

But the word is spoken, and the dance is danced nonetheless. I’m reminded of Narnia again, of the incredulous question of whether you hoped to find a safe, tame reality in a Lion’s mane. Phillip Pullman wrote his Dark Materials trilogy as in some respects a secular answer to the Narnia books. But to me the Earthsea novels read as a classical Christian answer to contemporary Christian fantasy that would represent God as the ultimate safety net, as the overwhelming force for good that will erase or correct all badness and emptiness without danger and without cost.

These are good, old books. They read like old stories. You’re not going to find sharp, sparking dialogue. You’re not going to find a riveting plot in the first three pages. But you’re going to go places and you’re going to see things that shape you. You’re going to meet people you want to be like. You’re going to—if you stay the course—see at last the wings of dragons over the Isles of the West.


ManaliveManalive by G.K. Chesterton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What does optimism look like? What would be the result of a life lived in absolute goodness and innocence? Do you have to be blind and stupid (or intolerably dull) to imagine the world is an unspeakably good place and behave accordingly? This is the paradox of reading Chesterton. These are the questions that Chesterton, in all his blustering bigness, wrestles with in every one of his writings. And we shade our eyes, and we laugh or we sigh, and we ask ourselves: was he serious? And we hope desperately that he was.

I can’t do Chesterton justice. He’s a wonderful, frustrating, bigger-than-life character who himself belongs in a fairy tale (and, fittingly enough, Neil Gaiman puts him there in The Sandman). He has inspired and exasperated generations of Catholic apologists. He was a columnist, a journalist, a writer of pseudo-fantastic tales, a Christian apologist, and author of the greatest long-form modern poem in the English language. He is C.S. Lewis with a bit more swagger. He’s hard to swallow, wonderful to read, and always painfully refreshing.

Chesterton believes that the world is good. Unflinchingly, undeniably good. You can find his apologetics in Orthodoxy, but you can find his philosophy distilled to the best effect in his novel Manalive, one of my all-time favorite books. Manalive—for reasons I still don’t understand—is not as well known as The Man Who Was Thursday or even The Napoleon of Notting Hill. But if you want Chesterton at his brightest, if you want to know what all the fuss is about, start here. It’s not all smooth going, especially if you’re not up to speed on late-Victorian literary forms (because no one outside of Masterpiece Theatre really talks like this, do they?). Much of the story is told through letters and nested flashbacks, and the characters spend most of the duration of the novel in a single room. It’s short though, and it would make a fine play.

I maintain that it’s a great book. I’ve read most (all?) of Chesterton’s novels, and I think this is the best elucidation of what he was trying to convince people of regarding the nature of reality. Perhaps not the most compelling plot, but still fun to read and (once you get used to it) laugh out loud funny.

The plot is fairly straightforward. A group of world-weary adults are living together in a boarding house in London called Beacon Hill. An old acquaintance of one of them shows up and with his madcap antics convinces them that they’re not really living and that they should spend more time climbing trees, playing games, and having picnics on the roof. The boarding house is transformed into a place where anything is possible—where its inhabitants realize that anything always was possible—and, among other things, they pair off and start planning weddings. Innocent Smith, the newcomer, is the model of Chestertonian Christianity: very much alive and very much convinced of the goodness of the world. This is Chesterton at his best: making you stand on your head to see that the world was a magical place all along.

But what’s this? Smith attacks a visitor to the boarding house in the process of planning an elopement with one of the boarders. New information comes to the surface. It turns out Smith has attempted murder before. He’s a criminal. A thief. And, apparently, a polygamist, abducting unfortunate girls all over the country. An inquest is held. The boarders, so recently enchanted by Smith’s antics, decide to investigate the matter themselves, and through a series of eye-witness accounts and flashbacks that form the second half of the novel, each of the charges against Smith—attempted murder, robbery, marital abandonment, and polygamy—are examined in turn. Is Smith a villain, or is he simply the exemplar of true goodness and innocence that seems madness in the eyes of the world?

If you know Chesterton, you know the answer. All of Chesterton’s paradoxes are trotted out and displayed in the life of Innocent Smith. Smith shoots at people, but only because he’s sure he’ll miss and to show them the value of life. He breaks into houses, but only his own, because it’s by climbing through a window or down a chimney that you can see what is yours from a new perspective. He leaves home, but only to find it again for the first time. He courts his wife again and again under different guises, because only marriage is the true, unending romantic adventure. He refuses to settle into a life of dull contentedness; he continually shocks himself into true life, into true awareness and appreciation of his world, his home, and his family, by a sort of constant cartwheeling of innocent amazement.

Does it work, we ask along with the other characters in the novel. Is it possible that being so perfectly good and perfectly innocent will result in such exuberant happiness? Well, Chesterton asks us through the lips of one of his characters, how many of us have ever tried it? Smith in this novel is Chesterton’s challenge to world-weariness and ennui, which were always for him among the greatest sins. But does it work? I can suspend disbelieve in a novel. I can, as through the wide, bright windows of Beacon House, look out for a time on Chesterton’s world of sunlight and dizzying clouds. I can try to believe the world is as good as he says it is.

But I doubt. This is my Chestertonian paradox, and I don’t know enough about Chesterton’s biography to answer it. Manalive was written before the Great War, which killed the optimism of millions of lesser men than he. (For some reason I have it in my head that Chesterton was a war correspondent during the Boer War, but I can’t find a citation that establishes that right now. If so, it would mean he had experienced some fairly gruesome things firsthand.) Did it kill his? Probably not, but what about a kid dying of cancer? What about all the rotten, shitty realities of the world that make Chesterton’s radical optimism seem ludicrously naïve?

I love Chesterton. I think he’s right. I hope he’s right, and maybe that’s what it comes down to: hope and choice, choosing to believe the world is better at the core than we can sometimes perceive or conceive. And if you can take that from a dead, sometime overtly racist, Catholic white guy, read this book.

Our books become the windows through which we see our world. You might find Borges and Wolfe (who modeled my favorite character in literature, Patera Silk, after Chesterton’s famous priest-detective Father Brown) sitting on the sill of Chesterton’s stories. And the view through these windows is indeed bright. That’s certainly worth something, since so many of ours have become broken or are looking out onto grisly, post-apocalyptic scenes. Read Chesterton to try to believe the world is that good, and then go out into it to see for yourself. I can’t promise he’s right, but I hope to God he is.