Tom Oord’s The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of God’s Providence (IVP, 2016) has sold very well, including the Kindle version that has slept unread on my iPad for the past year. But now I’m teaching a course in contemporary theology, so the timing was good to read Oord alongside my students.
Let’s begin with what’s right with the book. First, Tom Oord is unafraid to tackle tough issues, and none is tougher than theodicy, what C.S. Lewis called “the problem of pain.” In the first chapter, he rehearses what anyone who has been a follower of Jesus for any length of time knows: Sometimes, God lets us down. What’s more, horrific things happen in our world, events that seem to defy our common understanding of God as both all-powerful and all loving. Oord’s timely and practical introduction draws the reader in.
A second positive aspect of The Uncontrolling Love of God is its down-to-earth style. You don’t have to be a trained philosopher to make sense of what he’s saying. Further, Oord has done a decent job of presenting biblical evidence to support his thesis, though it’s apparent he is more at home wearing his philosopher’s hat than his Scripture cap.
Which brings us to the question: What is his central idea? Oord explains:
God’s loving nature requires God to create a world with creatures God cannot control (Location 2001, Kindle edition)
The phrase “God cannot” is the hardest hurdle to clear, and Oord understands this. The reason he insists on using the phrase anyways is that the nature of love – according to Oord – is always non-coercive, or “uncontrolling.” Here Oord tries to carefully circumscribe the meaning of “coerce,” clarifying that it does not carry a psychological, violent, or bodily sense, only a “metaphysical” sense, meaning that – in such a scenario – God would “act as a sufficient cause, thereby wholly controlling the other or the situation” (Kindle location 2547).
I’m still reflecting on this central premise. I agree with Oord’s observation that if God can control in some circumstances in order to mitigate evil, then it becomes difficult to understand why God seems to stay quiet on the sidelines at other times (Kindle location 3000). Yet the biblical witness that God sometimes controls is too obvious to easily dismiss. For example, attempting to follow Oord’s model, I find it hard to believe that uncontrolling love alone can bring about the consummation of the Kingdom of God described at the close of the New Testament. In fact, Revelation makes clear that persuasive love alone will not be enough to reign-in the devil, the incorrigible enemy of God and all that is good. In overwhelming force – yes, coercion – Jesus will return and arrest the devil and his minions, casting them into a lake of fire (Rev. 20:7-10). This is a case where God in Christ will “wholly control the other or the situation,” to use Oord’s words. In fact, the spiritual warfare worldview as promulgated by theologian Gregory Boyd presupposes at least some form of coercion. This worldview is the default for nearly a billion of the world’s inhabitants that call Africa home, yet it seems not to register on Oord’s radar. Arguably, it is as much a challenge to his model as are miracles (addressed in chapter 8).
But let’s set aside the adjective “uncontrolling” and talk about the noun, namely, “love.” Throughout the book, Oord is critical of the Calvinistic penchant for making power (or sovereignty) God’s most important attribute. On the other hand, Wesleyan theologians often cite love as the essence of the divine being, and Oord is no different. But it may be asked:
Do we need to identify a single divine attribute that is most important? What purpose does such prioritization serve?
How would Oord’s project look different if — instead of beginning with love then building the superstructure of his argument upon that — he esteemed all God’s attributes equally, whether that be sovereignty, faithfulness, love, or a dozen other characteristics? Instead of looking at Philippians 2 and its kenotic interpretation as central, what if we rather saw that passage as only one piece of a much more complicated puzzle, one that also encompasses attributes seemingly opposed to love, such as wrath? In short, to identify love as the most important divine attribute is a judgment call. Some theologians will agree; others will decide on another attribute and reference his or her own proof texts. The only alternative is a far more ambitious project, to look at providence and the problem of evil in light of the various attributes of God’s character even if that means holding them in creative tension.
Tom Oord wrestles commendably with the problem of evil and suffering, yet he leaves out key Christological considerations, most importantly, the resurrection and the return of Christ. Without a future tense, theodicy is unsolvable. I wish Oord would be a little less philosophical theologian and a little more creedal theologian, for nested in the Apostles’ Creed are phrases that can give hope to every hopeless situation he eloquently describes in the first chapter of his book:
“On the third day he rose again.”
“I believe in the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”
The same comforts pastors provide at a Christian funeral should have something to say in a discussion of theodicy. Indeed, the resurrection is the peg on which the whole of the Christian faith is suspended. Arguably, it should also be the peg on which theodicy hangs. “Jesus rose. We too shall live.” The rest is details.
Where I think The Uncontrolling Love of God can help is with the non-believer for whom the resurrection might one day hold comfort (should they come to Christ) but who for now finds traditional theistic explanations of evil and suffering a deal-breaker. Oord’s book allows the reader to question whether what well-meaning Christians have told them about God and God’s ways is in fact completely accurate. I can see the book as facilitating a rethink for those who have concluded – through their experience – that God is either sadistic or non-existent.
The book’s weaknesses notwithstanding, I recommend The Uncontrolling Love of God. Even in the areas where the author and I disagree, it forced me to think about why I was disagreeing. That can only be healthy for any thinker who desires to plumb the depths of God and how God interacts with the creation.