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The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence Kindle Edition
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This is no small task, as innocent suffering is clearly the biggest challenge to the claim that Christians worship a God who is perfectly loving and good, yet all powerful. Everyone has struggled with this question to some extent: if God could prevent a tragedy, why didn’t God prevent it? Isn’t God morally culpable for not preventing something horrible that God could prevent? Oord outlines four main ways that Christians have tried to understand God’s role in allowing or preventing suffering:
1. God ultimately is the cause of every event, whether good or bad. This model comes fairly close to divine determinism as it sees every event as ordained by God and under his complete control. Oord identifies this view with theologians such as John Calvin, Benjamin Warfield, and others especially in the Calvinist/Reformed tradition.
2.God empowers and overpowers. This model suggests that God gives people and the rest of creation free will, though occasionally God overrides that free will to accomplish God’s plans. Oord suggests this is probably the most common view among most Christians in the pew today. Roger Olson and classical Arminian theology trends in this direction.
3. God is voluntarily self-limited. In this framework, God could control everything, but voluntarily chooses not to. When God creates, God commits to allowing creation to be free and so allows creation to run its course, though God could choose to control it. This view is associated with thinkers such as John Polkinghorne and Philip Clayton, both major voices in the science and religion dialogue.
4. God sustains as an impersonal force. This view is farther left of the self limiting model, for it denies God’s personal agency. God is the invisible, ultimate sustainer of all being, though this God does not act in the world in personal ways. This is the God/Ground of Being of thinkers such as Paul Tillich and various forms of “liberal” theology.
All of these models, according to Oord, fail to adequately explain God’s relationship to the world in an ethically and scientifically credible manner. He points out what he sees as the shortcomings/failings of each of these positions and then counters with a fifth position that he calls “essential kenosis.” Drawing on the Christ hymn of Philippians 2:1-11, which describes Christ’s emptying of himself within the divine nature to take on a human body, Oord argues that this divine “kenosis” (self-emptying) is part of God’s essence (essential nature) so that God’s nature as self emptying love does not allow God to control the wills of creation any more than God is able to lie (Hebrews 6:18). God creates the world and gives it freedom to self-determine, and God cannot control it because that goes against the divine nature of self-emptying love. Oord writes, “The model of providence as essentially kenotic…portrays God’s self-limitation as involuntary. God’s nature of love logically precedes God’s sovereign will. This means that God’s self-limiting kenosis derives primarily from God’s eternal and unchanging nature of love and not from voluntary divine decisions. Because God’s nature is love, God always gives freedom, agency and self-organization to creatures, and God sustains the regularities of nature” (ebook location 1241).
In the “real world,” this means that randomness is real. God does not directly cause all events, but that events, especially evil and tragedy occur as a result of creation’s freedom. This, Oord argues, comports well with what physicists and biologists are learning about events at the micro or quantum levels. Things happen outside of God’s control all of the time, but God is present in all events, calling all aspects of creation to their fullest and best potential, even though they may resist that call. (For those who are familiar with process thought, this is very similar to the idea of the divine lure calling all occasions to participation in the divine life. However, Oord distances himself from classic process thought in that he maintains a traditional view of God that affirms that God is personal and has agency in the world.) God does not coerce creation in the sense of overpowering its agency, but calls it to cooperate with God in a way that is good and beneficial. When creation and free creatures choose not to cooperate with God, evil occurs and God cannot be blamed for it.
Oord uses this model to offer an account for how miracles can occur in the world. He defines a miracle as “an unusual and good event that occurs through God’s special action in relation to creation” (ebook location 2755). This model, thankfully does not deny the special action of God, nor does it require God to arbitrarily break God’s own “lawlike regularities in nature” (Oord’s term for natural laws) at certain times, and not at others. Since open and relational theology affirms that the nature of the future is not exhaustively foreknown by God as settles, but is comprised of possibilities, God works miracles by providing new possibilities for creatures to cooperate with.
This book gave me quite a bit to think about. I found it to be incredibly understandable, probably more so than my review of it! The conclusion that God’s nature is uncontrolling love that does not allow God to override creation’s freedom is undoubtedly a very uncomfortable position for many to consider. However, I would recommend reading the book before dismissing it outright. Oord seems to adequately address many of the qualms we might have. He utilizes the Bible’s own account of divine action well and incorporates a healthy dose of philosophy and science.
My only disappointment with the book is that it lacks a chapter on eschatology. One of the major (though unfounded, in my opinion) criticisms of open theology is that if the future is not definitively settled, then how can we trust that God will bring about the new heavens and new earth. Open theology typically affirms that God has settled some events and will not allow the world to self-destruct or run on endlessly, but will bring about a conclusion to history. It is process theology that does not hold to such an assurance. I’m sure Oord affirms that the final consummation is settled somehow, and I would be interested to see how he works that out in the paradigm of essential kenosis. Overall, it was a great and challenging book that offers a lot of practical resources to the question of suffering and God’s goodness.
For me, Oord ranks with Chesterton, Lewis, Capon, Wright, Yancey, and Boyd as writers that have empowered my journey towards a greater understanding of God's endless mercy and grace driven by His magnificent love. May Christ be praised.
Seriously. Oord has finally provided the solution to the problem of evil in the world, and provided the way forward regarding the age-old debate over divine sovereignty and free will.
Using the love of God as seen in Jesus Christ as the guiding principle, Oord shows how God's love does not (indeed, cannot) control others. If it did, it would no longer be love.