God Can't (Thomas Jay Oord) --- A Review

GOD CAN’T: How to Believe in God and Love After Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils. By Thomas Jay Oord. Nampa, ID: SacraSage Press, 2019. 202 pages.

                The theological word “theodicy” covers one of humanity’s great questions, that having to do with God’s nature and the presence of evil in the world. It speaks to questions of divine power and authority as well as the goodness of God. To put it simply, if we claim, as Christians normally do, that God is love (as revealed in Scripture) and that God is powerful (omnipotent?), then why do we see evil world? Can we affirm both premises as true? Either God is not all powerful or God is not loving. For certainly a loving God would prevent, preventable evil. Attempts have been made down through the ages to hold both God’s omnipotence and God’s love together, but does it work in the face of the ongoing presence of evil? You might suggest that God permits evil to exist? But why? You can appeal to freedom of the will but is that a sufficient answer? Most of the proposed answers fall short. People want to know why, if God is loving, God doesn’t act? If God is too weak to act, then why bother?  

Among the theologians and philosophers wrestling with these questions is Thomas Jay Oord. Until recently Oord was a tenured member of the faculty of Northwest Nazarene University, a position taken from him. Tom is perhaps best known because of his connections with Open Theism, but much of his published work focuses on the nature of love and God’s connection to love. Regarding this connection, Tom works from the premise that God is love, and that love is by definition non-coercive and uncontrolling. His recent book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (IVP Academic, 2015) offers an extended exploration of what it means for God’s love to be uncontrolling and noncoercive. That book gave rise to a collection of essays that respond to this premise, and it is a collection to which I am a contributor. That book is: Uncontrolling Love: Essays Exploring the Love of God, with Introductions by Thomas Jay Oord (SacraSage press, 2017). Tom’s latest book, which carries the provocative title God Can’t, takes this conversation a step further.  I say provocative, because as I shared with Tom when I read the book in manuscript, I found the title a bit off-putting. He received my criticism graciously but rejected my advice. Having had time to let the book and its title sit with me for a while, I've grown more comfortable with it. However, it’s still provocative.

While the earlier books address a more academic audience, God Can’t was written specifically for a lay audience. In this book Tom shares the implications of his vision of the "uncontrolling love of God." The subtitle helps us get a better sense of what Tom is up to in this book: "How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils." He wants to give people a reason to believe in the face of tragedy and evil. That’s not easy, as demonstrated by the response of many Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. In the face of important and difficult questions, Tom offers a five-part answer. This isn’t an attempt to prove the existence of God. That is assumed. What is at issue is the nature of God in the face of evil. Can we affirm the premise that God love and also recognize that genuine evil exists in the world? Tom believes we can, and this book is an attempt to demonstrate why.

Tom begins by affirming the premise: “God can’t prevent evil.” It's not that God permits evil, it's that God is by nature unable to prevent evil from occurring. This isn’t because that God is weak or lacks power. The reason is rooted in the nature of love, which defines God’s own nature. He writes that a loving God will prevent preventable evil. Since genuine evil exists, and he insists that God is love, then the evil that exists must not be preventable. That is the first answer. It might not be convincing by itself, but it is the starting point.

From this foundation, Tom moves on to his second point or answer That is, God feels our pain. God is a fellow-sufferer. In making this declaration, Tom takes on an important element of traditional theology, which is rooted in Platonism and assumes God is impassible. That is, God does not experience change (or pain and suffering). Tom rejects this premise, insisting that if we look to the Hebrew scriptures for guidance on this matter, we see that God does change, as well as experience suffering and pain. Therefore, God can feel our pain. By itself, this answer is insufficient. After all, a weak God could feel our pain, but Tom isn't suggesting that God is weak.

The third point insists that God works to heal. God isn’t passive in the face of evil and suffering. God desires to bring healing and wholeness, and in fact is engaged in healing n some form or another.  In other words, God is at work turning back the evil that afflicts creation. Since God is love, doesn’t wish for anyone to suffer. Neither does God cause suffering. Instead God is at work, often in ways we cannot fathom, to bring healing, but this act of healing requires something of us, though he affirms that some healing will await the afterlife.

The fourth element in his answer to the problem of evil, suggests that "God squeezes good from bad." It is not that God causes bad things to happen, or desires them to happen, but when they happen, God can and does work to bring something good from the situation. On one level, if we understand natural consequences, we can see some forms of suffering as a form of discipline. Again, God works with us to bring good out of evil.  

The fifth and final step is the key. "God needs our cooperation." Remember, in his definition of love, love is non-coercive and uncontrolling. I do struggle with this definition, even if I have adopted it for myself. So, if evil is to be overcome, if good is to come out of suffering, then it will require cooperation on our part. That might be conscious cooperation, or it could occur at deeper levels of reality that are beyond our consciousness. In addition, Tom affirms the idea that God's relentless love pursues us even after death. This is a concept that I have long embraced. In other words, even if we continue resisting God into death, death is not the final word. Therefore, when it comes to answering the questions lying before us regarding God, love, and evil, then his response is: "if God always loves, never controls, and wants love to reign, God needs love responses." (p. 176). 

Not everyone will receive this word. There is something comforting about an all-controlling God, even if it fails to make sense of suffering and evil. We can and we do compartmentalize. We can affirm the love of God and divine permission of evil, but does this ultimately make sense theologically? Is it an appropriate defense in the face of evil? Again, if we expect a loving person would prevent preventable suffering or evil from occurring, then if God is, as Tom affirms, all-loving, and if God has the power to do something about preventable evil and suffering, then shouldn’t God act? We wouldn't let a human being off scot-free, so why should we let God off the hook? Simply leaving this in the realm of mystery is not ultimately satisfying. It surely won’t give comfort to those who suffer. In this book, Tom attempts to provide us with an answer that doesn’t look like previous answers, and yet it does seem to offer a way forward.

One thing to remember is that when Tom offers this five-point response to the problem of evil, it’s an all-or-nothing proposition. If you pull out one of the pieces, it won’t hold together. At the same time what he offers us is rooted in Scripture and Christian theology. This book is more than anything an invitation to understand and embrace “the power of God’s uncontrolling love [which] is a relentless but noncoercive force empowering us and all creation” (p. 183).  In that regard it is well-written and most importantly, considering the audience, accessible. Tom knows how to write for scholars. He also knows how to speak to non-academic audience (he spoke to my congregation and connected quite well with them). It is deeply theological, but he conveys his message making use of stories that carry the message forward, stories of lives touched by suffering and even evil, but lives that have been transformed by the message of God’s uncontrolling love. As for me, as a reviewer, I give my full recommendation to the book, even with its title!  


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