Thursday, September 08, 2016

The Uncontrolling Love of God

I recently finished Thomas Jay Oord’s lastest book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. Below, I will first summarize his work (hopefully fairly!) and then provide my personal response.

The world is out of control. That is, to put it bluntly, Thomas Jay Oord’s explanation for the problem of pain. And the world is this way because God is essentially love and love is essentially uncontrolling. By uncontrolling, though, Oord certainly does not mean that God is inactive. Rather, God is extremely active in a non-coercive way. Instead, God partners (but not as a strategy, partnering is simply inherent to God’s loving nature).

Evil is not to be understood as something God needs (in order to contrast or produce good). Evil is the result of both the randomness of nature and the bad choices of free agents. But Oord goes a step further than the classic free will defense to the problem of pain. Classic theology, he says, also must answer why God doesn’t prevent genuine evils from occurring (since, in classical theology, God certainly could prevent such things from happening). Oord’s theology states boldly that God doesn’t because God can’t. It would go against God’s very nature to unilaterally control.

Oord’s view creates (or at least clarifies) some novel ground in the middle of the debate on the nature of God’s providence. Much like the Christian debate on war and peace, some see God’s providence as very aggressively hands-on (overpowering creation) while others see God as an observer (a pacifist, perhaps). But Oord offers a 3rd way to understand God’s providence (parallel to the ‘peacemaker’ approach to the debate on violence). He says that God is essentially kenotic. His position stands between the view that God is voluntarily self-limited and the view that God sustains as an impersonal force.

This is an open and relational theology, but it goes further than most open theists have ventured. The specific point of tension is whether other open theists have taken seriously enough their claim that love comes first. If love really is the truest thing about God, then God couldn’t have made a decision on how controlling to be. God simply is uncontrolling. It’s who God is, not the product of God’s power to choose what kind of God to be. Evil isn’t caused by God, but neither is it allowed by God. Evil is just a reality of the kind of world that, of necessity, exists.

But lest one despair, Oord reminds his readers that God is an active agent in the world as well. God is always partnering (or trying to parter) with agents to bring about good. Most significantly, this happens at the level of humanity, but God even partners with objects on a molecular level. The bottom line is, for Oord, that God NEVER unilaterally controls anyone or anything. Even miracles are best explained as the products of partnership(s).

As an open theist, I knew that there would be areas of agreement between myself and Oord. But I also knew, based on previous interaction with his work, that this book would stretch my thinking. Oord’s goal seems to be to take a theology of love to its logical limits and he’s willing to push the boundaries even within a group already known for doing just that.

For me, the basic tension between this book and other works by open theists is the question of whether or not God chose self-limitation or is simply inherently limited by God’s loving nature. I do believe love comes first (God is love), but I don’t presently agree with Oord that this necessitates his conclusions regarding providence.

I actually wonder if Oord’s understanding of the trinity plays a bigger role in forming his conclusions than his emphasis on love. Though it is not a subject of the book, it seems to me that Oord’s rejection of the social trinity forces his hand, so to speak. Without inter-personal love amdist the members of the Trinity, Oord is forced to locate that love essentially into the nature of that (1-personed?) God. If love is not primarily the relationship that exists between Father, Son & Spirit, then love must be more like the force within (of) God’s self. Nature works out of necessity. Relationships works out of will. For Oord, God had to create, had to give freedom, had to be uncontrolling, etc. For most open theists and advocates of the social trinity model, God willed to create, willed to give freedom, willed to be uncontrolling.

At this point, I’m both out of my depth and dealing with very fine details of like-minded theologies. There was much I liked and much to chew on in Oord’s book. I consider the strength of the book to be his willingness to make love the true center of his theology and to push the boundaries of our thinking (which surely brings fair and unfair criticism his way). From my perspective, the weakness of the book stems from Oord’s rejection of the social trinity and skepticism of the demonic realm (which receives very little attention in a book mostly having to do with the reasons evil exists in this world). In any case, I highly recommend the book and would like to thank Thomas Jay Oord for writing it and for always being willing to interact via social networking. 


Thomas Jay Oord said...


Thanks for your kind and generous review. I think you rightly state the main idea of the book. I appreciate your insight.

As far as your criticism of my rejection of the social Trinity, I don't see the connection you see. One can affirm the social Trinity and also affirm all of the ideas in The Uncontrolling Love of God. There's no contradiction. In fact, in my book The Nature of Love, I lay out an argument for why one could accept the social Trinity and accept essential kenosis. You might take a look at that book, if the social Trinity is important for you.

Above all, I just want to express my appreciation to you for reading the book and taking the ideas seriously.



matthew said...

Thanks, I may check out The Nature of Love.

As I said, I felt a bit out of my depth with that 'criticism'... I feel like there is a connection between our differences in regards to the Trinity and some of the ideas that I felt less comfortable with in your book. But I could be wrong!