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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Reflecting on "The Uncontrolling Love of God"

Well...  I turned in my reflection paper on Tom Oord's, The Uncontrolling Love of God, today.  There may be few things less terrifying than turning in a reflection paper to your professor who is the author of the book!  But... you know... less fear and all that...

I do not ordinarily post academic work to this blog, but I think this paper is a worthwhile read for a couple of reasons.  First of all, it's not really all that academic.  It's a reflection paper, not a research paper.  I think the vast majority of my readers can handle it.  And second, you need to read this book.  All of you.  Today, if possible.  I think this post might give you just enough of a teaser that you'll go do just that...

So here goes...


"We all want to make sense of life" (Oord, 2015, 15).  In The Uncontrolling Love of God, Tom Oord claims that he has solved the problem of evil.  This is a gargantuan claim.  Oftentimes, people struggle most with the problem of evil because of the way God's attributes are defined.  The omni-attributes of God are most prevalent in this struggle.  It does not make sense that a God who is omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient would allow for evil in the world.  If God is everywhere, all knowing, and all powerful, why would God not simply step in to stop, or better yet prevent, all genuinely evil occurrences.  Oord makes two important proposals regarding this question.  First, perhaps we have poorly defined the omni-attributes.  But more importantly, perhaps we have misunderstood that God's primary attribute is love and that no amount of foreknowledge, power, or even presence can override the loving nature of God.
            Throughout much of Christian history there has been an ongoing debate about God's attributes.  Although there are many viewpoints, two that stand in direct conflict with one another are the Calvinist and Wesleyan stances.  On the Calvinist side, a picture is painted of a God who not only knows all that will happen but a God who directs, dictates, and coerces all things in order that God's will is accomplished in every moment.  This God not only uses evil but creates it in order to accomplish a greater good.  In the midst of tragedy, people are expected to embrace the idea that everything will be OK, because God knew about the tragedy before the beginning of time and intended for it to come to pass.  This is comforting for some people.  They embrace the idea that God is in control.  Power reigns. 
            On the Wesleyan side, an all knowing, all powerful, fully present God still exists, but this God has self-limited in such a way to allow free will.  Because of this, God often looks on almost as an innocent bystander.  God knows what each choice will be, but God does not intervene, at least not most of the time.  This concept of intervention is problematic, because it implies that God is actually not fully present and would need to move in order to be close to the tragedy.  But God does not move in.  Instead, God allows people to make their choices and only then will God comfort the grieving, perhaps bringing good from the tragedy as people cooperate with God, but never (or not often) stepping in to stop the evil as it occurs.  This is also comforting for some people.  They embrace the idea that God knows, God understands.  Empathy reigns.
            And yet, the question remains, if God could stop evil, why would God not choose to do so?  Further, why would God not choose to do so all the time?  Oord postulates that the real reason for this is neither that God is orchestrating evil nor that God is allowing it.  Perhaps, instead, God cannot act unilaterally to put an end to genuinely evil occurrences in the world.  Perhaps, instead, "God's power is essentially persuasive and vulnerable, not over powering and aloof... cruciform... other-oriented love" (Oord, 2015, 155).
            This idea that God cannot do some things is not a new one, but it is an uncomfortable one.  Even Scripture indicates that God cannot do some things.  God cannot sin.  God cannot be tempted by evil or tempt others.  God cannot lie.  And yet there is a great deal of pushback when it is suggested that God cannot stop evil.  This may be because humanity is desperate for an answer, but it is not wise to desire something that would usurp love as the primary attribute of God.  Almost no one legitimately wants God to be more powerful than loving, not when people stop to think deeply about what that could mean, not really.
            Since, "love by definition is noncoercive" (Oord, 2015, 181), this puts the burden of culpability squarely on humanity, on creation, and sometimes even on random chance.  God does not desire evil and acts persuasively, much like God acts first in prevenient grace.  God pursues and calls, but sometimes, even often, "creatures and organisms may not respond well to God's call" (Oord, 2015, 179).  Since God cannot act unilaterally but in partnership with creation; this shifts the blame regarding evil from God.  We can accept that God is doing everything that God can do, with love at the core of God's attributes. Essential kenosis does, indeed, solve the problem of God's culpability for evil.
            Unfortunately, there are other aspects of evil for which essential kenosis, on its own, does not account.  Because our God of love cannot prevent or impede genuine evil by use of coercion, we are left with some circumstances that seem hopeless.  It seems like a good trade-off to believe, soundly, in the unending goodness of God.  There is some peace and comfort in this.  But the fact that people experience pain, loss, and grief is still prevalent.  "Some evils are character destroying rather than character building.  Many people have lives that are made far worse because of intense pain.  They grow bitter, vengeful and tyrannical, making life hellish for others and themselves" (Oord, 2015, 25).  What do we do with this?  Essential kenosis says that we don't blame God, and this is a move in the right direction.  However, God appears to take responsibility even for that for which God is not culpable.
            Inasmuch as humanity must respond, in some way, to genuine evil; God also offers a response.  Ultimately, that response is consistent with self-giving love, incarnate in the death and resurrection of Christ.  And yet there are other, smaller ways in which God reacts in everyday, ordinary circumstances.  God is always with us, bringing comfort in the midst of even the greatest sorrow.  Empathy does not account well for all genuine evil.  It is certainly not an acceptable reason for evil.  Arguments that insist that, "We must go through hell to appreciate heaven" (Oord, 2015, 19), fall flat.  Yet God does offer us the kind of love that moves heaven into our own personal hell if we will accept it.  God also squeezes as much good out of genuine evil as God can, continuing to work in partnership with humanity.  Arguments that insist that God creates evil for a greater good fall flat, but God does offer us the kind of redemption that brings as much good out of evil as there can be. 
            In many ways, The Uncontrolling Love of God and essential kenosis provide us with a sound foundation for faith in a God defined primarily by love.  This is refreshing in a culture that often views God as either coercive or uninvolved.  Essential kenosis allows for a God who embodies the classical attributes of God often considered orthodox in our understanding of theology, but it also redefines the order, saying, "love comes first" (Oord, 2015, 163).  And it does.  Why would we want anything less?

Work Cited
Oord, Thomas Jay. The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015. Print.

Works Consulted
Boyd, Gregory A., and Paul R. Eddy. Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002. Print.

Holy Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011. Print.

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