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updated 5:22 AM CEST, Jun 10, 2021

The self-giving God shares power with creation

A new, powerful model of divine providence is convincing and made me think. I have a few doubts, though.

Thomas Jay Oord is an academic theologian and philosopher on the border between process and open theology (and boundaries will blur soon, according to himself). The Uncontrolling Love of God is a panentheistic view of God and the world (an omnipresent spirit penetrating all things created, or how Mr. Oord likes to call it, a theocosmocentric view). All this is based on kenotic love, kenosis being the self-emptying, self-withdrawing, self-limiting, self-giving and others-empowering love of God, elaborated most in Philippians 2:4-13, where Jesus is described as being “in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (2:6-8)

In this model “God’s eternal nature is uncontrolling love”, and He necessarily delivers freedom and agency to creatures, and “God works by empowering and inspiring creation toward well-being”. God also inevitably maintains the laws of the universe. “Randomness in the world and creaturely free will are genuine”, and

God never controls others: “divine love limits divine power

and “God providentially guides and calls all creation toward love and beauty”.

There are many reviews of the book out there (mandatory reading is that of the Christianity Today). Here I focus on two things: what I particularly liked in the content and what imperfections I think I found in the book in terms of consistency and logic.

Good vibrations

I like many things about the author. First, he is a ruthlessly systematic guy, and this book is so structured. It is not even linear, but has a spiral structure, winding in a gradually tightening curve towards its propositions and conclusions. The way this book was written is almost artistic. Second, he has an excellent command of the subjects he writes about, and he is not afraid of quoting classical theists (who were and are contrary to the open and relational theologies he represents), like Thomas of Aquinas, Augustine or Calvin if he agrees with them. I learned a lot and I will use this book as a handbook or textbook when writing about open theology. The parts about the models of providence (models from the deterministic views to the deistic views and beyond) or about the different approaches that might lead someone to accept open theism (the Bible, theology, philosophy, science) are particularly fit for that purpose. Third, he is very accessible, he responds to his critics (check out his debate with John E. Sanders) and to his audience and regular readers, too (eg in a Facebook group created for this work).

I enjoyed his analysis about the randomness in the world and linking the quantum theory and evolution to open theology.

If randomness and chance exist, then he rightfully says that “Augustine, Calvin and Sproul are wrong”.

I agree with his statement that the accurate combination of chance and regularity makes the world capable of existing, growing new forms of life. It must be painful for a Calvinist to read that “a controlling God of love is fictional” and “essential kenosis offers an adventure model of reality. … Adventures aren’t safe, after all, because they have general goals, not predetermined designs. Adventures involve calculated risks, free decisions and sometimes random occurrences. Love is an adventure without guaranteed results.” I love the way he incorporates the doctrines of salvation into his model: if all miracles occur as creation works together with God (because “miracles always occur in relation to creation”), then the miracle of election and salvation necessarily must be collective, and not individual.

There are some really nice wordings in terms of the basic tenets of open theism: “The limited-but-genuine-freedom position says we freely choose among a limited number of options...” Or: “open and relational thinkers believe God is omniscient. They believe God knows everything that can be known. God knows now what might occur in the future, but cannot know all events that will actually occur. To put it philosophically, God knows all possibilities and all actualities, but God cannot know which possibilities will become actual until they are actualized.” Free will is important “for making sense of positive moral transformation.” I love this: “Genuine evils [contrary to necessary evil] are events that, all things considered, make the world worse than it might have been.”

Thin ice

Mr. Oord grasps a lot and since this is quite a new theoretical structure and theology, and he has the ambition to provide an all-embracing, complete worldview (as he puts it, “making sense of life”), the risk to lose all is significant. But the compliment goes to the author because he succeeded.

I found only two imperfections in the book.

The first is the philosophical approach and the consequences. Though he claims he originates the book from a biblical quote (or a word: kenosis), other than that (at least from the perspective of my taste) he barely quotes the Scriptures and sometimes I had the feeling that this key biblical term is an excuse to justify retrospectively a robust philosophical system. Mr. Oord seems to be aware of this and the sufficient number of quotations are there, anyways, plus he invites the reader to apply the entirety of the framework for the Bible (like for all miracles). So, I’m OK with that. Another consequence is that

the biblical personality and psychology of God are lost somewhere in air.

Mr. Oord, replying to me on a Facebook post, confirmed that “God has emotions and a personality. I think God is social, in the sense of relational with others.” Said this, I think it would deserve a longer, thorough elaboration, the Bible is quite straightforward when it comes to the passions and feelings of God.

And what about the Mosaic Law and God’s covenants with the Jews? How is it part of the uncontrolling love?

Another consequence is that saying that God never controls others is contradicting the Scripture and common sense. We get to the somewhat odd statement of Mr. Oord that “creation differs from God in that free creatures are free both in deciding whether to love and in deciding how to express love. … Because of this, for instance, creatures can choose sin and do evil.” Has humankind then more freedom than God? Sometimes we, humans also need to heavily intervene to the life of our friends, family and colleagues no matter how uncontrolling our love is. Exceptions prove the rule. Sometimes God intervenes, that makes Him personal. At least I wouldn’t rule out the mere possibility. An example, according to the author: the miracles are joint efforts and results of actions of God and of man – so if man can control others, why isn’t it possible that God and man control something together?

Lastly, the question arises: is there randomness in God? If no, why? If yes, what are the consequences?

As a summary, the book is sometimes like distilled water:

I still miss the freedom and passion of God when it comes to the relationship with the creatures.

The other inconsistency (or room for improvement) also comes from the philosophical approach of the book. It is about God’s loving character and the purity of His love. For the author, God cannot cause evil. More importantly from the point of view of the book, he cannot allow it either for the good of the whole. “Do we think it more loving to suffer with others than to prevent evil, if we were able, in the first place?” Oord says no. “A perfectly loving God should and would prevent genuine evil if it were possible”. So God cannot be morally culpable. He argues that the evil is not a “prerequisite for good”, and “the amount of evil far outweighs whatever we might need to appreciate good.” If evil was a prerequisite for good, heaven must include pain and evil – he states. Mr. Oord cannot accept that even one individual needs to suffer without reason, just for the good of the whole.

I think differently, but more importantly, I see a logical twist here. God said after the Fall, that “the man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.” (Gen 3:22) Which means that God knows good and evil. Common sense also says that God cannot know evil if He didn’t experience it and did not sin Himself. God must have practical knowledge of sin and He must hate sin and the evil, because he must know the consequences. And yes, sometimes God uses a strategy which involves sin, like letting Adam and Eve be tempted, but always for the better. God continuously tests His people throughout the Bible to find out if they remained faithful. Testing is sometimes painful and sinful. And I think this view could be reconciled with the book. "Testing" and "tempting" are not always intentional, but part of a world of randomness and chance and as such, are part of the world's nature. He cannot prevent testings and temptations from occurring. If we respond the right way, God's heart is filled with love and joy. If we respond the bad way, He grieves. The alternative of this is that ALL temptations and testings come from Satan and that statement is not biblical in my view.

So, in my view God is not pure love, but he is the most loving and the most powerfully loving of all beings, the most pure possible. By the way, that is enough for me.

Being completely good is a philosophical and romantic idea, it exists in the Scriptures only in poetry. And here come the questions: how can a God, who cannot do anything which is not good, and who has never done anything else than good, heal humans physically and spiritually, save them from their sins and change things for the better and eliminate evil in general and help building his Kingdom on Earth? If God never experienced sin, how can He handle and solve it? How can he answer meaningfully to the genuine evil? I would have loved to read more about the original sin. Original sin is crucial in my view for all open theologies, but it was missing from the book. Lastly, if humans are co-creators, humans should be creating “genuine”, “new” good to some extent as well, pleasing God.

As a summary, the dichotomy between a perfectly loving God who never sinned and who is not entirely free and a sinful creation that has more freedom seems to be unrealistic for me.

I received helpful comments from Terry Matson and Mr. Oord on a Facebook conversation, talking about addictions, victims and about what we feel and what we do when we see them in our environment. Terry disagrees with me and doesn’t think that “one must experience sin in order to fully know the love that is the emergence from sin”. As he put it very nicely, the “gift of relating redemptively is based on our relation to both sin and love, to both chaos and wholeness. Yet, at the center of all that is, if there is not One who is perfectly whole, we are all damned in the truest sense…”

Mr. Oord commented that “like most Christians, I think Jesus was tempted but without sin. And I think Jesus can inspire and empower us to overcome sin. … God can love and help victims of addiction (or sin more generally) without being addicted in Godself.”

My view is that it's clear we don't need to try each and every one of the forms of addiction, to be able to love and help the victims. We are able to generalize. My question: is it possible to love and help genuinely and authentically the victims of any addiction if we haven't tried (experienced) ANY (smaller or bigger) addictions (or in general, any evil behaviour) in our life,

and consequently, the devastating effects? Or, is God addicted to love?

The best is yet to come

A possible solution for the second issue might be that human kind was created and is being created in order to help erasing sin from God (e.g. with our praise to the Lord or with our fighting for Him and against evil – we are co-fighters). I believe this is in sync with Mr. Oord's theoretical and biblical framework: the amount of good increases in the world and the amount of evil decreases as a result of co-creation and co-fighting.

This said, the Uncontrolling Love of God is one of the best books I had read in 2017 and I will use a lot this book as a point of reference in my future investigations around open and relational theologies. Looking forward to the next steps of Mr. Oord’s intellectual journey. Kudos, Thomas!


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