I recently had the honor to interview Thomas Jay Oord about his newest book, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. [1. Dr. Oord is a leading theologian advocating something known as open theism. I don’t adhere to open theism and don’t agree with all of Dr. Oord’s positions. My interview with him (and with any others) is no full endorsement of his views, but an endorsement of someone whose work merits attention, even if I don’t agree with it all. You can also see this post by Roger Olson for the most cogent criticism of the book that I’ve seen (though it is more technical than what you’ll find below and the disclaimers at the beginning will be unnecessary for most––see the part on miracles for his most useful commentary)]
Our interview focuses on a question we’ve all asked: How can a good and loving God allow the kinds of evil and tragedy we see in the world today. Dr. Oord deals with difficult and often controversial issues. He was right at the center of controversy you may have heard of this spring when Nazareth Nazarene University laid him off. We discuss that in the interview, as well.
Teddy Ray: I’m here today with Thomas Jay Oord. He is a theologian and philosopher. He’s actually written and edited over 20 books, and he’s just about to come out with his newest book. It comes out on December 9th, and it’s called The Uncontrolling Love of God. This is a book that tackles questions that probably a few of us have asked. It’s about the problem of evil and random tragedy and trying to find some different solutions to some of those problems, so Dr. Oord thanks for being here with me today.
Thomas Jay Oord: Hey, you’re welcome. It’s good to talk with you.
TR: Before we really get into some of the questions about the book, I just wanted to thank you and compliment you on the way that you write. You wrote something really interesting and accessible and the kind of thing that I can actually hand to a friend and say, “Hey, you will enjoy this, and you’ll understand it.” I’ve become so frustrated with a bunch of our great theological thinkers who are saying really important things but I know I can’t hand what they’re saying to almost anyone, and so I appreciate that you’ve been able to do that. Thank you. I’m sure that’s something that is a really intentional thing for you.
TO: It is. It’s a major compliment for you to tell me that because I’ve worked very hard at that, and I’ve had the same kinds of frustrations that you’ve just expressed. So I’ve worked hard on my prose. I actually got to thinking about this fairly early in my career after I finished my PhD trying to tell people what my dissertation was about and why it mattered. And then I took a job as a newspaper reporter for a science and theology news and I realized I had to change the way I wrote so that people could grasp the concepts. So I’ve been working at it for a while, so it’s gratifying to hear you say that I’ve been at least partially successful.
TR: Yeah absolutely. I really appreciated that.
Well let me go ahead and ask: You are constantly asking questions about some of the hardest and most controversial topics. What draws you to thinking and writing about these kinds of subjects?
TO: Probably, I have those questions myself. I think that part of the Christian task, or at the very center of the Christian task is the issues of love. Not only loving others and loving ourselves and loving God but loving that’s with our whole being, which includes our minds, which includes asking the difficult questions, expressing the doubts, trying to find plausible answers. And I find that far too many Christians are afraid of those difficult answers and feel too uncomfortable, and I want to pursue them in the hope that I can have some satisfying explanation for what I think, and to give an account of the hope that I have in Christ Jesus.
TR: And so this particular book, I think maybe the summary of the reason you wrote this book: you wrote, “I believe it is impossible to worship wholeheartedly a God who loves half-heartedly.” And that seemed to just sum up so much of what you’re talking about.
TO: Yeah yeah. I want to be full-out in my love for God as well. And that means, as I understand it at least, worship is at least in part an act of love. And if I have some real doubts about God being steadfast in loving, then I have some real difficulty in giving my whole heart, giving my whole devotion to a God who just doesn’t seem to be, perhaps, at least in the way some theologians talk about God, perhaps isn’t entirely loving.
TR: And so what you’ve done is you laid out for a number of chapters these are all my problems with understanding a God that we’ve seen in this way—that either allows evil, or even in some cases is the cause of that evil. And you went in a different direction, and you talk about something, your solution in two words is essential kenosis. Could you explain what you mean by essential kenosis when you say that’s the solution to the problem of evil?
TO: Sure. Let me begin by thanking you for noting these issues of God causing or allowing evil. You know, there are some theological traditions that have God being the ultimate cause and the primal cause of everything. This sort of hardcore theological determinism. But most Christians don’t really buy into that view. Most Christians think God doesn’t really cause these bad things. God didn’t cause would happened in Paris this past weekend, but rather God allowed that. God had the kind of power to prevent it, but for some mysterious reason God allowed this suffering.
And then there’s been a reaction to that that is trying to say, “Hold on a second. This doesn’t make a lot of sense. Why would a loving God allow the horrors we saw last weekend?” Or just start naming all the incredibly painful things that have happened in history, let alone our own personal lives. And so there are some Christians who have re-thought God’s power in a way that make it sound as if there’s some kind of external constraints upon God, some kind of laws or forces or other beings or other gods, and God is constrained by these external factors.
Essential kenosis says there are some real constraints on God’s power. There are some things God cannot do. But those things derive from God’s own nature. Kenosis, as you know, and probably most of your listeners know, is mentioned in several places in Scripture, but it’s most prominent in the Philippians passage. It talks about God as being revealed in Christ Jesus. And I like to call it this self-giving, others-empowering love.
And so, the heart of my notion is that God must give power, agency, self-organization, etcetera, to creation because of God’s nature of love. And God cannot withdraw that, take it away, override it. God cannot control others entirely because of God’s love.
TR: I know some people would hear that and they would say, “So you’re claiming God is not Almighty. We can’t say God Almighty anymore based on what you’re saying.” I don’t think that’s what you’re saying. Can you differentiate?
TO: Well first of all, let me acknowledge that what I’ve just said is going to make some people really uncomfortable. And that’s part of the reason why I think people have been really afraid to re-think God’s power.
I do want to say God is almighty, but of course I have a particular way of thinking about God’s almighty-ness. The Bible is not clear exactly what we mean when we say God is Almighty, but I like to say God is almighty in three senses.
First, God is mightier than any others. Mightier than all others.
Secondly God exerts might upon all others. In other words, we’re all influenced by God’s power.
And then third, God is the source of power for everything that exists. God gives power to others. So God is Almighty in all these three senses without being capable of entirely controlling anyone or anything.
TR: So even when you keep pointing back to God’s nature, the simple example I’m pretty sure you gave in the book was God can’t make a round square, and that’s not because God isn’t almighty, it’s just that it defies simple definitions. And right at the heart of this, this is trying to defy a simple definition of God as love when we say that God would override some of these things. Is that right?
TO: It sounds really strange to some Christians to say that God cannot do some things. If you look carefully at the Christian tradition, in fact the majority of Christian theologians have said God can’t do some things. Most of the time, they’ve put it in the realm of logic. “God can’t be Triune” in 357. God can’t make a rock so big that God can’t lift it. Those kinds of things.
What I do in this book is take this one step further and say, God’s nature is love. God must love. And this love involves certain kinds of activities: Others-empowering, self-giving, and God can’t control because of his nature.
TR: So let’s talk about creation because that’s an interesting place in God’s self-giving love, and you argue God can’t intervene now in any sort of coercive way. Is God’s creation of this world a coercive sort of activity? I think you would probably say this is a self-giving activity from the beginning. And then I would go on and say, so does that mean this is the best creation a loving God could have created?
TO: Excellent question. So I think that God is always creating. And although I don’t explore this particular concept in the book, I have in other books. I think we need to take seriously what seems to me the most straightforward reading of the Bible, which is that God began to create this universe in relation to that which God had created previously. So in other words, I deny the classic Christian doctrine, and Muslim doctrine, of creation out of nothing.
I have the Bible on my side on this one, I like to say. Most biblical scholars would agree that creation out of nothing is not in Genesis. The closest you can get to it is a passage in Second Maccabees. But even that one, most biblical scholars say, isn’t God creating out of absolute nothing.
So as God has always been creating out of that which God previously created, God is always working in relationship with creation. Bringing about something new, yes. But in relation to what came previously.
And because of that, this is not “the best world it could have been,” because creatures are always responding and we all know that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. And so the “perfect world” would be a world in which every creature continuously cooperated with God. We don’t live in that world, and so there could have been a better world, not that God decided not to create that, it’s that we as creatures didn’t respond well to God.
TR: Right, okay. And the other piece that you get into is what you call law-like regularities. So a person gets killed by a rock being flung into her car, and we say, well that was no one’s evil. Nobody did anything. How does that fit, then, in God’s greater loving creation?
TO: Yeah that’s a good question. It’s one I think stumps a lot of people. A lot of people say, “Well, God honors the free will of the terrorists and that’s why God doesn’t stop it.” But you know, the rock example you gave… I don’t think rocks have free will, so what would be wrong with God stopping a rock coming through the air, or even a bullet, for that matter, if it doesn’t involve taking away anyone’s free will?
And so I think the way to handle that is to say that God’s loving presence is throughout all the universe, not just to humans but to non-humans as well: other creatures, inanimate objects, etc. And that love gives existence and being. And because of that love, certain law-like regularities emerge throughout the created order. We tend to call these the laws of nature. Although that category, laws of nature, is highly-contested among scientists, or philosophers and scientists.
But the basic idea is that we see these law-like regularities in the world, and I believe God can’t interrupt those law-like regularities to stop the rock going through the air, or the bullet flying out of the gun because God not only loves humans and other animals, he loves all of creation, and that kind of existence-interruption is not possible for a God of love.
TR: So this leads us straight to miracles. Because I read through this book going, “Okay, so what is he going to say about miracles? He can’t believe in miracles.” And your whole final chapter is saying, “I believe in miracles.” And you walk a really thin line to say you believe miracles happen, but you also are really careful to define those in a particular way. Say something about how in the world we can have miracles based on everything you’ve just said.
TO: So I think the real problem when it comes to miracles is not the idea that miracles can occur, it’s the idea of why only some miracles occur, and not a whole lot more, or what I call the problem of selective miracles.
I’ve been a part of church since I was a young boy, and we’ve come and prayed in small groups, or gone to the altar. We’ve poured oil over people, we’ve prayed for healing, and a very small percentage of those people we pray for are actually healed.
We pray for miracles to help people out of financial difficulties, and a fairly small percentage of people really get back on their feet. So yes, miracles occur, but not nearly as often as we would like them to. And so, is God arbitrarily picking some people and some instances to do something powerful and other instances not? I mean, that’s a real big issue.
So what I say in this chapter is that miracles should be understood as having three fundamental parts: One, miracles are good things. Not just any old event that that happens is a miracle. It has to be some sort of goodness involved in it.
Secondly, it’s unexpected. Unusual, I should say. By unusual, I mean it’s not just your everyday kind of occurrence. Some people say all of life is a miracle. I say no, Christians have typically identified miracles as instances that are uncommon.
And third, and the big one, is that I think miracles occur because of special divine action in relation to creation. And by special I don’t mean that God totally controls or intervenes or overrides, but that God acts in special ways in relation to what’s possible in the situation. But there must be some positive creaturely response, whether that’s free will agents or other organisms or things involved in that.
So as I look at Scripture, the vast majority of Jesus’ miracles are done in relation to humans. And just about every story has some statement about a cooperative element, either the faith of the person healed or the faith of the friends or something like that.
Also when I look at history in terms of the miracles reported since Scripture, or even prior to that, the vast majority are miracles related to humans and organisms that have the capacity to cooperate or not cooperate.
Now it gets a little more difficult, I will be honest, when we talk about so-called nature miracles. Because when Jesus calms the wind and the waves, I don’t think wind and waves have free will. So here I appeal to chaos theory, to quantum physics, and some of those kinds of ideas to propose some ways in which such miracles, rare as they are, can occur without God totally controlling the elements involved. But I admit that it’s harder for us to imagine that scenario. Of course, it’s also far, far, far more rare to have these kinds of nature miracles, so I don’t feel like I have a huge burden to carry on that one. But that’s how I’m affirming miracles despite God not having all-controlling power.
TR: That makes sense. And I can imagine that your biggest difficulty is going to be people who say, “So water into wine. There were people who cooperated, but how did that not violate a law-like regularity in our world?” Water doesn’t turn into wine, no matter how many people cooperate with pouring the water into the right buckets and all of that. But you’re right, too, to say, “Those are few and far between.” There are a few, but it did seem to me in reading that’s still the biggest loophole is what do we do with these? And you acknowledge that. These are the most difficult to deal with.
I think the other thing that a lot of people I know would be most skeptical of, actually I can just say directly that I get most skeptical of, whenever I hear something that sounds like a theological invention, something that’s new—I think at one point you said “I created this solution”—I start to ask a lot of questions. So how did the church and theologians for two thousand years miss it, and now someone’s figured it out. Can you answer some to that?
TO: Yeah, I I can understand that. It might appear like I’m the ultimate in hubris. I have the answer and no one else. I guess I should answer it this way. I don’t think Christians have got it all figured out, not in the past or in the present. I think God is still active. I think there are still big questions. And I think God calls us to creatively engage Scripture, the world we live in, each other, etc., to try to find the most plausible answers to our big questions.
So while I have great respect for the tradition, I think the tradition was wrong on lots of things. I mean, we could probably start naming things we thought they were wrong on in terms of social issues like ordaining women, slavery, whatever. But also on some theological issues. I think the tradition was wrong in affirming this strong divine impassibility. There are some voices in the tradition that I think characterize creaturely freedom in ways that make it very difficult not to see how God is controlling things. So obviously not everyone in the tradition had that view, but there are definitely voices there.
So while I have respect for the tradition, I feel like there are big questions still looking for answers. And I feel compelled to try to find those.
What I propose I’m not saying is the definite absolute truth. But I am arguing that I find what I’m proposing, and so do a lot of other people, by the way, more plausible than some of the other answers they’ve heard. So while I want to be humble, I also want to be bold. And that’s what I’m doing in this book.
TR: And to be sure, I think you’ve done a great job of proposing something and saying, “This is new, and I think I’m setting forward something that hasn’t been set forward in quite this way,” without sounding brash about it. You sound humble throughout, even though you’re setting forward something new. So I did appreciate that.
Let me press on to one other subject. You’ve gotten yourself into trouble. You deal with controversial issues. You deal with hard questions. And so just this spring, something came out about your university, Nazareth Nazarene, having layoffs. You were a tenured professor, and it was announced that you were laid-off because of low enrollments. Now most other people don’t really buy that. They think it had to do more with some other theological things. How are you doing now? How are you reflecting on that?
TO: Yeah, it’s been a really painful year and half. It really began a year prior to that, when the President asked me to leave, and I said no. And then, this last spring he laid me off for what I think are dubious reasons, and so do most of my colleagues. My colleagues at the university gave the president a 77% no-confidence vote. And so it’s been a difficult time for me throughout all of this.
I think that if you’re a theologian operating at the cutting edge, your critics will be tempted to use that cutting edge to cut you some. And I think I’ve been cut some over the last year and a half. Now, of course, it’s my choice to live at the cutting edge. Someone might say, “Well, you should expect that, given that you’re there.” And maybe there’s some truth to that, that people are going to take advantage of the precarious positions that I put myself in because I’m asking difficult questions.
But again, I feel called to do this. I feel like this is part of what it means, at least for me as a Christian theologian who’s trying to make sense of Scripture, tradition, reason, experience, trying to make sense of the gospel of Jesus Christ in our contemporary world. This is the task I feel called to. I want to do that in the name of love, as best I can.
TR: I saw something you had written as a reflection on it and was just so impressed. I think you called it, “Ten things I’ve learned about love through this process.” To be able to reflect that way, instead of with anger or bitterness or anything else was really impressive.
One other quick question in that general light: what do we do with confessional schools and scholars on the cutting edge? Is there a place for confessional schools? How do we allow scholars to be on the cutting edge in that sort of environment? Any thoughts on that?
TO: Yeah, that’s a tough one. I’ve been thinking an awful lot about that. In my particular tradition, the Church of the Nazarene, which is a part of the larger Wesleyan tradition, nothing I said expressly went against the doctrines and what we call the articles of faith in the Church of the Nazarene. I affirm all of those. So this was never an issue of me explicitly taking on article 8 or whatever. This was a matter of the way people interpreted what I had to say as being controversial, as being a lightning rod.
And so I’m disappointed that a denomination, or at least some people in the denomination, would want to force those out who agree with the denomination’s articles of faith, but who are asking difficult questions. My view: we ought to have a broad tent and allow diversity in that tent. The scholars in my tradition, even though they may not agree with the particulars of my view, are all 100% behind me in terms of believing that my voice is needed in the tradition.
I think what happens often time, is that people are elected into leadership who don’t have the benefit of a strong theological education and don’t maybe understand the importance of the broad tent and the possibility that people need to have some freedom within that tent. Yeah, we’re going to affirm some very basic things, but we need the freedom to explore.
Just one more quick thing on that. Over and over again people have expressed to me the worry that because of what’s happened to me, many leaders, especially younger leaders, will be fearful of staying within the denomination and want to go elsewhere, where they can have more freedom to ask difficult questions and seek plausible answers. And that really worries me. I don’t think we need to be a place that discourages strong young minds from trying to give an account of the hope that lies within them.
TR: That’s a great point. Something I’ve been talking with other Methodists about even, saying, “How far can I go without getting in trouble?” And just asking some important questions about how far should you go? When is this an important question and when is this just you saying something you didn’t need to say?
Well thank you. I’ll conclude with that. I really appreciate your time today and this opportunity to chat and enjoyed reading the book. So thank you.
TO: Well I appreciate you offering me the opportunity to talk with you and for thinking about these ideas in the book. Obviously I’m putting them out there because I’m hopeful that they will be helpful, not just for me, but for many others who ask difficult questions about evil and randomness in our world.
TR: Well thanks Dr. Oord. I appreciate it so much. Have a good day.
That was Thomas Jay Oord. His newest book is called The Uncontrolling Love of God. It comes out on December 9th. If you’d like to hear a lot more, this was just a basic summary of what he shares in that book. I have an Amazon link on my post here, or you can pick it up in your local bookstore soon.
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My deepest gratitude to Jason Huber for producing this. His studio, graphics, and detail work made it possible.