THE UNCONTROLLING LOVE OF GOD: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. By Thomas Jay Oord. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.
Who is God? If you believe in God, as do I, what characteristics do you apply to this God? What is God’s identity? Depending on whom you ask you might hear that God is distant and capricious. Or you might say that God is loving and gracious. How you choose to live in relationship with this God may depend on your vision of God. If God is angry and capricious you likely will live in fear (and I don’t mean reverence). If you believe God is loving and gracious you may seek to draw close. There is another issue involved in this conversation and that has to do with the degree to which God is involved in history. That is, does God control things? If so, how much does God control and how much freedom do we have to determine our fate? The theological term here is providence, which speaks to the degree to which God’s hand rests on history.
A traditional understanding of providence assumes that God is in control and not only that but God already knows the outcome of history. Before we ever act, the future is already decided. We can’t really change things—at least from the divine perspective. We might think that we’re acting on our own, but in reality it’s all settled. That is, unless you embrace an open-relational view of reality. This vision comes in a couple of forms, including Process Theology and Open Theology. The latter has its location within evangelical circles, mostly Wesleyan in nature. Among the most prominent of these “Openness of God” theologians is Tom Oord, who is nearing the end of his tenure as a professor at Northwest Nazarene University. One of the features of Tom’s work has been his stress on the place of love in our theological understandings. In fact, his book The Nature of Love, (Chalice Press, 2010) has been a constant companion in my own theological and pastoral work.
In the Uncontrolling Love of God, Tom builds on this work to lay out both a relational understanding of divine providence and offer a theodicy (defense of God in the face of evil). After all, we all want to make sense of our realities, including the presence of evil and tragedy. Even people of deep faith wonder about God’s presence or apparent absence in moments of distress. If God is all powerful, then why doesn’t God act? The answer that Tom Oord seeks to offer here is rooted in the premise that love is the defining characteristic of God’s nature. Thus, the answer could be found in God’s nature. This conversation, however, takes place within the context of Tom’s own theological foundations. As an “Open Theology” advocate, he argues that God does not know the future in its fullness. He seeks to understand providence in conversation with the recognition that the future remains unwritten. God has intentions but there is still the place of randomness to account for, and that includes our input into the realities of life. This book is, as the author notes, an attempt to offer a “plausible explanation for how God acts providentially amid randomness and freedom” (p. 25).
Much of the book is taken up with laying out an understanding of randomness, agency, freedom, and offering models of providence. It is important to lay out the framework from which the author can offer his own understanding of God’s nature and God’s providential presence in the midst of the world’s realities. Central to his effort his embrace of what he calls libertarian free will. According to the author, “libertarian free will says genuine freedom is irreconcilable with being fully determined to act in a particular way. Libertarian-free-will supporters are incompatiblists because they believe we cannot be simultaneously free and entirely determined by other forces. In other words, free will and complete determinism are incompatible” (p. 59). If this is true then if God respects free will, then God cannot completely control or determine all of reality. God can influence and encourage but not fully determine. It is, contrary to God’s nature.
In answer to the questions posed by our realities, Oord offers an “open and relational alternative,” where “love is God’s chief attribute.” It is, he suggests “the primary lens through which we best understand God’s relation with creatures and the relations creatures should have with God and others. Love matters most” (p. 107). Though not a Process Theologian, Oord writes in conversation with Process oriented theologians such as Charles Hartshorne and John Polkinghorne. As an “Openness” theologian he is also in conversation with others of like mind, including John Sanders, author of the The God Who Risks. Sanders affirms that the path that God takes is a risky one. With Sanders, Oord in developing what he calls an “essential kenosis” theology, understands that the risk that God takes is that God may not get everything that God wants. For universalists (like me) could it be that God cannot guarantee that none will be lost. God may want to reconcile all things, but the risk undertaken may mean that this does not come to fruition. Added into this equation is the role of love as the essential characteristic of God’s nature. Is love prior to God’s power? In answering this question the two similar minded theologians disagree. Sanders gives more place for divine power than does Oord, though both would affirm that God is not focused on maintaining control. However, Sanders unlike Oord believes that God is in a place to prevent evil and therefore responsible in the end.
Oord offers a replacement for Sander’s vision, which he calls “essential kenosis.” The word kenosis has been well used of late and given differing meanings. For Oord kenosis involves not self-emptying, for God cannot empty God’s self of God’s identity, or even self-limiting—for how does that give answer to the questions of randomness? Where does God draw the line? Instead, he defines kenosis as “self-giving, other’s empowering love.” This self-giving love is essential because it comes first. It is primary in understanding God’s nature. God loves of necessity. God is free however to love in specific ways in specific situations, but according to the author this love is uncontrolling. In line with his previous definition of love as described in earlier books, “God promotes overall well-being through full-orbed love” (p. 166).
The question that will be continually emerging concerns God’s response to evil. That is, can God prevent evil and tragedy from taking place? The answer is no, for love precedes power. God cannot simply change the direction of something, at least not unilaterally. God can and does, however, work in partnership with creation. I use creation here because as a relational theologian, he is willing to accept the idea that God works at a deeper level, one that goes down below the atomic level, where God is at work loving and encouraging the good of all. While we might want God at times to do whatever God wants, even the most rigid of determinists will admit that there are limits. God cannot, as Tom notes, change the past. God cannot act in ways that are self-contradictory. God cannot deny God’s identity: “because love is the preeminent and necessary attribute in God’s nature, God cannot withdraw, override or fail to provide the freedom, agency, self-organizing and lawlike regularity God gives. Divine love limits divine power” (p. 169). The point that author seeks to make is that coercion and love do not go together. If God is love that God cannot coerce. It runs counter to God’s identity. Some will reject this premise as making God too small or too weak, but is this true?
This leads to an intriguing question – what about divine agency and miracles. Oord isn’t ready to let go of this category of realities. There are too many reports of seemingly random but providential occurrences that seem to connect with God’s nature. Miracles by definition are somewhat random events that are perceived positively. They bring good to a situation. We give thanks for them. To call them miracles is to affirm divine agency, even if it is not coercive. Indeed, it may require our cooperation, even if not at the conscious level. This will prove challenging, for it still raises the question of what some for instance experience healing and others do not.
Tom’s purpose here is to offer an explanation for divine agency in the midst of randomness in a way that respects freedom and embraces relationality. Not all will be supportive of this view. Some will find it unsatisfactory, for they will demand a stronger God, a God where power ultimately trumps love. But for Tom Oord love is essential and love trumps even power. We have to decide whether we can embrace this premise. I find it intriguing and attractive, even if not all the questions have been answered. It is, I will say, another fine book from a most thoughtful and thought-provoking theologian. I am blessed that Tom invited me to read the book in proofs and offer a response to it. I look forward to further engagement with the book and its premise that God is love and that God’s love is non-coercive and uncontrolling, but truly liberative!
A Note on the availability of the book: At the time of this review, the book remains available for pre-order on Amazon, with release slated for December 2015.