I’ve just finished reading Thomas Jay Oord’s book, The Uncontrolling Love of God. Most people who will read this will have no idea who he is. He is a scholar, philosopher, and a theologian. This latest book of his offers a ‘new way’ to look at the subject of providence — how God works in this world. In so doing, he addresses the problem of evil: the question of how to reconcile the existence of evil with an all-powerful, all-loving, all-knowing God.
I enjoyed the book and recommend it to anyone interested in philosophical and theological approaches to the subject, or anyone truly battling with making sense of life, who can also read something a bit on the heavy side and are familiar with big philosophical and theological ideas. (It’s not that bad, but it’s also not for everyone!). I learned quite a few things. I also recommend it to skeptics, they might find it interesting that Oord, a Christian, is able to recognize the clear issues of theism and admit they are real issues, and deal with them honestly and creatively.
If I had to summarize the main thought of the book, I’d say this: God’s primary nature is love, and this love forces him (so to speak) to create a world comprised of various degrees of free agency, and never override or coerce this world in respect of this agency. Some will say my choice of words is poor and doesn’t quite reflect Oord’s thoughts, but this is my impression of what he stated by the time I finished the book. I think such impressions count when you are reviewing these sorts of things.
The book opens up with real-life stories of tragedy and evil, each showcasing a particular “kind” of evil: a chance accident with a falling rock, a horrific rape, and a sad story of birth defect. It then moves to scientific and philosophical reasons why randomness (chance) is real. It also argues that free will is real and not an illusion. Skeptics might benefit from some up to date arguments on these topics (Sam Harris may be behind!) and it gives plenty of food for thought, challenging pat Christian answers to evil — God’s plan is mysterious, we grow from tragedy, you’ll have to wait until you get to heaven until you know, sort of stuff.
Oord seems to be a philosophical realist. This means, in general, that the way we experience the world intuitively is how it really is. I am more aligned to this. (This is one reason why I’m not an atheist). So I appreciate attempts to make sense of the world. This sort of thing actually affects me deeply.
Oord is also a process theologian, or at least seems to be, which is difficult to define. But he does prescribe to open theism in a way. This means that he believes God does not exhaustively know the future, because the future doesn’t exist yet. Choices are real things. God can move in history according to his plan, but the choices of free agents can frustrate or change his plan — at least in the details.
In Oord’s scheme, God’s creation is an extension of his primary nature, love. So in other words, God could never create a world where he is fully in control, as that would be a world that does not reflect his nature of perfect love. Perfect love must require others to make their own free choices and never be coerced.
But while God is not fully in control, he is able to influence creatures to choose to collaborate with him. This is the thrust of Oord’s argument, as I understand it. God never coerces, he only ever invites collaboration. This collaboration is not just an invitation to humans, but also extends to micro-organisms or other aspects of creation, including those that help our bodies function. This is one reason why someone with faith might not get healed — organisms in their body may decide not to comply to God’s request. In this case, it’s not God’s fault, it’s not the person’s fault, it’s the fault of the body and / or the disease itself. (Oord does present some scientific findings as to why he believes free will can be found in micro-organisms, etc.).
So what do I think of it? Does it solve the problem?
It’s a noble attempt at the issue, that’s for sure. You’ll find it really provides satisfying answers, logically, that make sense of terribly perplexing questions. The problem is that logic can often lead you pretty much anywhere, if you create a sufficient starting base (presuppositions). Logically, I could show you why infanticide is right, so long as I get you to agree to a few presuppositions.
But it has its strong points and they’re great. Firstly, to think of God as love first, power second (as Oord reiterates) is (I think) a brilliant exercise. God IS love, says 1 John 4:8 — not just that God loves. I really took that to heart. Oord makes an effort to work out the implications of this, but I disagree with how he always works it out. (Also, I think that we ought to rather put them together — God’s power is his love, his love defines his power and motivates it. Oord might agree to this, I just word it differently).
But this doesn’t mean God is only love. Why I say this is because a God who cannot choose to love strikes me as a God without much personality. While Oord criticises models of providence that make God out to be an impersonal force or the universe etc., there’s a tendency to strip God of actually being a person when we take aspects of God’s own free will away. Oord tries to get around this by saying God loves of necessity (he must love) and choice. So he recognizes God must also make a choice. But he doesn’t qualify this much though. I wish he did.
Rather, I think God could choose to not love his creatures. Of course, one would criticize this and say this implies God could hate, and surely he can’t hate, it goes against his character. Maybe. But I’m not too sure. God surely hates evil, and sin, and many other things too, if you take the Bible as scripture (as I do). It’s just that God consistently chooses to love his creatures, despite their rejection of him. This, for me, lines up much more closely with God’s love in grace.
There’s also an argument here I think Oord misses. If God can only create a world from his own nature (being love), it’s hard to understand why he was able to create creatures that could choose not to love. God can’t choose not to love, according to Oord, but yet his creatures can. That must mean God is able to create a world that is different to his own nature. However, if God is able to choose to love, or not, it would make sense that those made “in his image” (as Genesis puts it) have the same sort of freedom.
We are to trust God for who he is, not what he is.
God is perfectly free, as far as I’m concerned. The tough bit of Christianity is you have to choose to trust Jesus for who he is, not what he is. Calvinists who emphasize God’s sovereignty and power (especially in predestination) put a lot of faith in God’s attributes of power and sovereignty, while — in this case — Oord’s model makes us put our faith in God’s attribute of love. This would be like me putting my faith in my wife because she is a woman, not because I trust her, the person. See the difference?
Therefore, I must trust God that he makes right decisions, not that he isincapable of ever making a wrong decision. Again, Oord criticises ‘negative’ theology (the idea that God can only be described in what he is not, not by what he is) but there is a sense in which his understanding of God can very much take us there.
Does God never coerce?
Oord’s hypothesis that God can’t coerce anyone or even, to a degree, micro-organisms (and perhaps even objects) but only enlist their co-operation lines up to many things we see in scripture. He does a brilliant job of highlighting how miracles in the scriptures tend to only happen when people are involved. Even big ones, like the Read Sea crossing, required Moses to some degree.
He has a positive view of this coercion. It’s only ever for the well-being of creation. “Because of love, God necessarily provides freedom/agency to creatures, and God works by empowering and inspiring creation toward well-being.” (page 94.) I like this positive view and I really like the way this is worded and carefully presented.
But then I come across Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5. God strikes these two dead for lying to the Holy Spirit. Again, we see Peter’s involvement (so maybe Oord is right that God always needs co-operation) but the end result just doesn’t line up to the general idea that God inspires creation only ever toward well-being. Maybe Oord doesn’t want to take this story literally, or wants to claim that the writer of the book assumed that it was God when it wasn’t (I don’t know the specifics of Oord’s take on scripture) but then he has to be consistent with other miraculous accounts, positive or negative. Unfortunately, he didn’t address this. But he does address many other honest questions, so I think it might have been an oversight in the edit of the book.
Oord’s take on randomness and spontaneity is refreshing, and I loved reading some of the science and philosophy behind it all. Quantum mechanics fascinates me, and so does Chaos Theory. I also loved how he views randomness positively: the fact that God has made the world with chance and randomness often brings great adventure and creativity, not to mention the ability for us to enjoy sports.
But sometimes this randomness goes wrong. At this point, mention of the Fall in Genesis 3 would bolster his overall argument. But he never mentions it. Maybe he doesn’t believe in it as it’s usually presented, but I think he might be missing out on a fantastic reason why what God created for good can be used, or turned into, evil.
Does God’s love stop him from preventing evil?
No, I don’t think so. So what’s my theory? I think we’re getting there, but we’ve still got a long way to go.
Ryan Peter is a writer, journalist and ghostwriter from Johannesburg, South Africa. He writes fantasy, sci-fi, inspirational fiction, and on faith. Ryan is also part of the New Covenant Ministries International (NCMI) translocal team.