Oord’s Uncontrolling Love of God: A Critique

OordTom 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.

 

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No resurrection? No Christianity

sproutI like Good Friday. There’s something about the love of God that you can’t miss when you look at the Cross.

Last week, I entitled my blog: “No Cross? No Christianity.”

But let’s imagine that Jesus had died but not risen. Would Christianity even exist?

The Apostle Paul didn’t think so. Writing to the Corinthians, he insisted:

And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith (1 Cor. 15:14, NIV).

No resurrection? No Christianity.

Pondering the resurrection yields many truths. Here are a few:

1. Resurrection reminds us that “good” and “evil” are not to be confused.

People looked at the life of Jesus Christ and saw the loving goodness of God. Yet a handful of religious leaders refused to acknowledge that goodness. Instead, they called it evil and nailed it to a Cross.

God will not tolerate calling what is good, evil. That was the essential point of Peter’s sermon on the Day of Pentecost: “You will not let your holy one see decay” (Acts 2:27b). God had vindicated Jesus, the righteous one.

Good is good and evil is evil. The resurrection is God’s warning to not confuse the two.

2. Resurrection affirms that our bodies are to be joyfully celebrated.

Gnostics taught that only spirit is pure; matter – including our bodies – is corrupt and must merely be endured. Resurrection, on the other hand, reminds us that our bodies are good creations of a good God;  they are to be celebrated! In fact, our bodies are so important that God will one day give them back to us in new-and-improved form. Jesus’ resurrection is the prototype of the resurrection of all (John 5:28-29). The joys of this life are bodily joys. They will be restored in the Kingdom of Heaven.

3. Resurrection is the promise that God will one day right all wrongs.

Why do bad things happen to good people? Theologians have sometimes solved the riddle by either claiming that God is not all good or that God is not all powerful. Both of these solutions fail to satisfy because they leave out Christ, more specifically the Cross, the Empty Tomb and the Second Coming.

There is no greater example of a “bad thing” happening to a “good person” than when the religious leaders had Jesus crucified. Sometimes we forget that the story doesn’t end with the resurrection. The end of the story is the return of Christ! It is only then that the dead are raised and final judgment takes place (2 Thess. 4:13-18; 2 Cor. 5:10).

The resurrection of Jesus is a past event but one that points us forward. Because Jesus lives, we too shall live. Because God through a specific resurrection righted the terrible wrong done to his Son, so we believe that God will one day through a general resurrection right the wrongs suffered by many across human history.

Summing it all up

Resurrection Sunday is indispensable to the Christian faith. No resurrection? No Christianity. Good and evil are not to be confused. Further, we celebrate our bodies as God’s good creation here on earth and – one day – his new creation in the Kingdom of Heaven. And while we mourn that evil can triumph over good in this life, the resurrection teaches us that God will one day set things straight.

Christ is Risen! He is risen, indeed.

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Image credit: HDWYN.com

When happy-clappy just won’t do

Weeping JesusBill and Gloria Gaither’s hymn, “Because He Lives,” affirms Christian faith in a powerful way. Other Gaither songs (mercifully) have faded into obscurity, ditties like “Happiness” –

I found happiness.

I found peace of mind.

I found the joy of living,

Perfect love sublime!

I found real contentment, happy living in accord.

I found happiness all the time, wonderful peace of mind, since I found the Lord.

The beloved composers from Alexandria, Indiana have written some amazing songs, but let’s be honest: This isn’t one of them. To assert that embracing Christian faith gives us “happiness all the time,” removing sadness from the believer’s experience, is theological quackery. Two events that made me decidedly unhappy this week were terrorist attacks in Paris and northeast Nigeria, the senseless toll of lives brutally snuffed-out surpassing 2,000. A third saddening occurrence didn’t make the news, but it was important to those who knew her. Karen (38), a loving wife and mother of three, succumbed to cancer after a prolonged, heroic fight. She was a teen in the Missouri church where I pastored. She had so much to live for! Really, God?

The "Minnestota Mission," Sedalia Church of the Nazarene, summer 1992. Karen is the third girl from the right.
The “Minnesota Mission,” Sedalia Church of the Nazarene, summer 1992. Karen is the third girl from the right, standing.

At times of grief, we don’t need another happy-clappy song to make us feel guilty for crying. For times like this, we need lament, the words of King David grieving over his slain son, Absalom:

The king was shaken. He went up to the room over the gateway and wept. As he went, he said: “O my son Absalom! My son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you—O Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33, NIV)

Thomas Tomkins (1572-1656) set this biblical text to choral music. As a tenor in the A Capella Choir at Eastern Nazarene College, the song never failed to move me. (Click here for to a moving rendition of the piece with a beautiful montage).

Ecclesiastes 3:4 reminds us that there is a time to weep. But apart from funerals – which these days are as likely to be called a “celebration of life,” further discouraging tears – do we allow lament as one of the languages of our Christian worship?

untitledIn his book, Worshipping Trinity: Coming Back to the Heart of Worship (Wipf & Stock, 2012), Robin Parry devoted chapter 9 to the topic of lament. Unpacking Romans 8:17-25, he notes (p. 140) that by “groaning in the Spirit,” we:

1. Express our “sorrow, pain and frustration at the current state of affairs”;

2. Signal our “expectation for a better future”;

3. Intercede, which is “simultaneously a prayer to God for new creation.”

Parry observed: “So the story of the church and of creation is darkness now but light to come – a story already played out in the life of Jesus” (p. 139). Yet much like Holy Week, are we sometimes on Dark Saturday tempted to fast-forward to the Resurrection?

Don’t do it. To heal, we need lament!

We need to give one another permission to feel the deep, searing pain of loved ones ripped away from us, just like Jesus was snatched from the disciples and laid lifeless in a damp tomb. And while it’s understandable that most of what we sing on Sunday morning is upbeat, positive praise addressed to God, is there not a place for worship music that says: “God, this hurts so bad”?

These reflections began with a critique of Bill and Gloria Gaither’s song, “Happiness.” To their credit, they wrote a more authentic song entitled “I believe, help thou my unbelief.” Make no mistake: This is a lament, a desperate desire to hold on to Christian faith even in our darkest moments. It doesn’t tie things up in a nice little bow, and so in the same spirit, I leave the reader with no tidy conclusion, only this song.

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Image credits:

1) Weeping Jesus: Sadlier

2) Worshipping Trinity: Wipf & Stock

Appreciation for a bridge builder

SmedesLewis B. Smedes, the late professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary, wrote fourteen books in his lifetime. I’ve read only one, his last, My God and I : A Spiritual Memoir (Eerdmans, 2003), which is a rather backwards way of doing things. Still, if this book is a good indicator of the quality of his prior work, I’ve got some more reading to do!

Professor Smedes sums up his outlook on life in a succinct paragraph (p. 64):

I was, from the start, a Christian of the bridge. I liked bridges that I could cross over to drink from unbelievers’ goblets, to feast on their wisdom, and to admire their good works. I also liked bridges that I could cross over and, with God’s blessing, be a blessing to the people on the other side.

Though he joined the Christian Reformed Church as a young man, it is apparent that Smedes over time grew increasingly uncomfortable with parts of the Calvinistic creed, particularly the doctrine of absolute sovereignty, that “God is in control” of the most minute details of what transpires on earth. In response to this idea, he pens one of the most moving chapters in the book. Recounting the death of his newborn son, only a day old, Smedes observes (p. 121):

On the day that our baby boy died, I knew that I could never again believe that God had arranged for our tiny child to die before he had hardly begun to live, any more than I could believe that we would, one fine day when he would make it all plain, praise God that it had happened.

Smedes’ honest remarks resonate with me. We concur when later he applies the same logic to the events of 9/11/2001, seeing in the terrorist attacks not the hand of God but the pure face of evil. He concludes: “God, we hope, will one day emerge triumphant over evil, though, on the way to that glad day, he sometimes takes a beating” (p. 125). I am happy to affirm that God is far more powerful than anyone, but cannot ascribe evil committed by others to a good God, an inescapable conclusion if one believes that God has ordained all that happens.

On the negative side of the ledger, My God and I does not read evenly. The earlier chapters are slow, so the reader should be persistent since the second half of the book moves at a quicker pace.

My God and I is a good snapshot of one who combined the life of the mind with a warm heart for people. It’s a rare combination. In our polarized world, one can pray that the Lord will raise up more conciliators like Lewis Smedes.

My Times are in Thy Hand

William F. Lloyd, composer of "My Times are in Thy Hand"
William F. Lloyd, composer of “My Times are in Thy Hand”

I’m one who travels by jet, a lot.

Those who – as one of my Ivorian students put it, “vivent dans les avions” (live in planes) – get over thinking about the thousands things that could go wrong on an airplane at take-off, landing, or mid-flight. Statistics that prove you’re more likely to die in a car crash than in an airplane are comforting.

But whatever probability theory teaches, I find peace in theology, knowing that I am in God’s hands.

When our older son, John, was just 3 years old, he learned the Sunday School chorus, “He’s got the whole world in His hands.” “Dad and Mom,” he asked one day from the back seat of the car, “does God really have the whole world in His hands?” “He sure does, Johnny” we replied. Johnny was quiet for about 10 seconds, then finally commented: “God sure must have big hands.”

I sang tenor with the A Cappella choir at Eastern Nazarene College. The choir was known for closing out its concerts with an interpretation of Psalm 31:15a, with lyrics by William F. Lloyd:

“My times are in Thy Hand,

My God I wish them there.

My life, my friends, my soul I leave entirely to thy care.”

But I really like the last line of the song: “Then after death, at Thy right hand, I shall forever be.”

The hope that we have in Christ is the resurrection of the body. No human or diabolical scheme can shake that faith. No missile can shoot it down.

Our love and prayers go out to those mourning the loss of loved ones on Malaysia Airlines Flight 17.

I believe in the resurrection, when wrongs not righted on this earth will be squared away and loved ones separated by evil and senseless acts will be reunited. God will have the last word.

Maranatha!  Come, Lord Jesus, and complete your Kingdom.

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Image credit: Cyber Hymnal

Comfort or hardscrabble? Comparative views on evil and suffering

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Young boys in the Muthare slum of Nairobi, Kenya

If you want to chew up a church in America, hire a missionary who has just returned from Africa. When you’ve witnessed abject poverty and the resilient spirit of many who live in it, you may be tempted to ask a well-off U.S. church member complaining about petty things:

Would you like a little cheese with your whine?

As a theology teacher, I often include a section on theodicy in courses I teach pastors here in Africa. Theodicy is the doctrine of evil and suffering, especially attempts to justify God whom we believe – despite all evidence to the contrary – is both Almighty and good. It’s the old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But I’ve noticed across the years that theodicy doesn’t cause the angst in my African adult students that it causes in me. In fact, I’ve yet to come across a book written by an African theologian on that topic, though it’s a perennial favorite among American Christians, including the latest by Pastor Tim Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (2013).

Why is this the case?

Many Americans I know (including myself) are accustomed to comfort, growing angry at God when difficulties unexpectedly arise. In contrast, many Africans I know are accustomed to a hardscrabble life and praise God heartily when they receive unanticipated blessings.

My wife and I went to the Muthare slum in Nairobi for church a few years ago. Eighty of us were packed tightly into a small room with a tin roof and a dirt floor. We sat on wooden benches in their humble church. At the end of the service, they wanted to celebrate Christmas early since the children in their church-run primary school were at the end of their term and would soon scatter. Two women brought out a white 12″x 12″ frosted cake. Before that day, I wouldn’t have thought it possible to cut such a small confection into eighty slices, but they masterfully pulled it off, gingerly wrapping each morsel in a napkin and passing it to the children. The young ones’ eyes lit up in delight at the sugary treat! I thought how as boys my five brothers and I easily devoured a birthday cake twice that size and with a fraction of the gratitude that those Kenyan children showed.

What was the difference? My brothers and I expected comfort as life’s default setting and so took cake for granted. As for Muthare churchgoers, they seemed to expect tough times as the norm and so were elated to find an exception to the rule.

Regarding theodicy, the apostle Peter lived closer to the dominant African view than the dominant American one. In 1 Peter 4:12-13 he writes:

Dear friends, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that has come on you to test you, as through something strange were happening to you. But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed (TNIV, italics added).

How can I who have received so much so easily fall into a complaining mode? My prayer is that God will help me to see the world with new eyes, as a place where tough times are normal and good times are a serendipity. Then, let me as I am able and directed by God’s prompting, be a channel of God’s good gifts.

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Photo credit: Journey of Hope

James Dobson’s strange theology of Sandy Hook

James Dobson, Ph.D., well-known child psychologist
James Dobson, Ph.D., well-known child psychologist

On December 14, 2012, a gunman entered Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. After a shooting rampage, 26 lay dead, among them mostly children.

Inevitably, there was a single question that arose in the face of such a tragedy: Why?

Many answers have been offered to that question, but one of the most ill-advised was that of Dr. James Dobson. In a December 27, 2012 radio broadcast (click here to listen), Dobson spent the first ten minutes or so reading a letter he had produced thirty years earlier, lamenting the breakdown of the family. Here he was on solid footing, clearly commenting within the area of his own professional expertise. Though Dobson has chafed in the past when critics have wrongly called him a preacher or evangelist, this did not prevent him from speculating about how God fits into the picture, comments picked-up and critiqued in multiple media outlets:

I am saying that something has gone wrong in America. We have turned our back on God. Millions of people have decided that God doesn’t exist or He’s irrelevant to us. And we have killed 54 million babies…I think we have turned our back on the Scripture and upon God Almighty, and I think He has allowed judgment to fall upon us. I think that’s what’s going on.

Like James Dobson, I lament the 54 million unborn babies lost to abortion since the legalizing of Roe v. Wade in 1973. However, there are multiple problems theologically with Dobson’s statement. Here are some of the questions that arise:

1. Would God retaliate for 54 million abortions by allowing the killing of elementary school children?

These are not Dobson’s words as such, but in context, it is his clear implication. God allowed – on Dobson’s reading – “judgment” to fall on America. Apparently, the gunman was the instrument of that wrath. Yet did not Jesus say: “He who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9b, NIV)? If you want to know what God is like, look at Jesus. Our Savior is the one who took little children on his lap, hugged them, laughed with them, and told us that if we want to enter the Kingdom, we must become like them (Matt. 18:3). What a picture of unconditional love! God is not let off the hook by Dobson’s insertion of the word “allowed,” as if making God a bystander somehow lessens the offense. Child protection agencies recognize that child abuse is not the only way children are harmed; child neglect can be equally harmful to a child’s well-being. By Dobson’s logic, by allowing the gunman to go on his rampage, God neglected those children that day, supposedly to allow God’s “judgment” to fall. If Dobson is correct,  how could we worship such a God?

2. Is there an “evil streak” in God?

We serve a God who is just. God cares deeply about sin, and constantly warns us against its negative effects (Galatians 6:7, Romans 6:23). But James Dobson’s comments go beyond the image of a God of justice, painting instead an evil God.

I’m reminded of a story of a old golfer with salty language. One day, his pastor invited him out to golf. On the first hole, the old man stepped up to the tee, swung at the ball and totally failed to connect. “Darn’t!” he cried. “I missed.” Surprised, the preacher warned him: “You need to watch your language. God doesn’t like it when we talk that way,” to which he replied: “Nah, it’s no big deal.” On the second hole, the same scenario repeated itself – another swing, another miss. “Darn’t, I missed” he swore. “I told you on the last hole, God doesn’t appreciate that kind of talk” the pastor warned. Again, the old man shrugged it off. Finally, on the third hole, he swung like before and totally whiffed. Yet again, he griped: “Darn’t! I missed.” Suddenly, the skies opened up and a bolt of lightning descended, striking the pastor dead. Then came a booming voice from heaven: “Darn’t! I missed!”

If the killing of 26 at Sandy Hook was truly a demonstration of God’s judgment, we must admit that God had lousy aim, punishing the wrong individuals. In Ezekiel 18, God affirms that each of us bear the weight of our own sin, that judgment comes upon the guilty party and not upon the innocent. To say that God allowed a gunman to mow down school children in a hail of bullets is to make God the de facto executioner . In this way, shall we passively attribute to our just and loving God such a callous and wicked act? To do so would be to project upon God a darkness that is foreign to the divine nature. John affirms:

God is light. In him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5, NIV).

A dark cloud, an evil presence, invaded Sandy Hook on that day. A Hindu could believe that God – like the Force in Star Wars – has a “dark side” and a “light side,” but Christians dare not tolerate such a foreign idea in our theology. Shall we claim that God had anything to do – even passively – with that dark presence at Sandy Hook? How does that begin to fit with what we know about the character of God as revealed in Christ?

3. Are God and humans the only actors on the stage?

A final concern with James Dobson’s comments touch upon who exactly are moral agents with the power of free will. In theologies that over-accentuate the sovereignty of God – a God who controls all events in the minutest of detail – one is obligated to try to discern God’s plan in every circumstance, even the most egregious acts. Either God directly caused it or – to use Dobson’s language – “allowed” it. On the other hand, Gregory Boyd in God at War argued that God is not all powerful in so far as others also have volition that God has freely granted to them.

Who are these others?

These include human beings but also faithful angels and rebellious angels, including the devil and his demons. Since the Fall in Eden, Boyd argues that earth has become a battlefield. On such dangerous terrain, innocents are sometimes caught in the cross-fire. They may be injured, even killed. Through the Christ event – his incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension – God has won a decisive battle, but the war will not end until the return of Christ in triumph. Meanwhile, we live in the precarious parentheses when the reign of Christ has been inaugurated but awaits final consummation. In this “already/not yet” of human history, terrible things still happen, yet we put our trust in a God who ultimately will defeat the forces of evil.

This acknowledgement of multiple actors on the stage frees us up to imagine other possibilities. I don’t for one minute believe that God had anything to do with the massacre at Sandy Hook, either actively or passively. What was God doing that day? God was surely seen in the heroic, selfless acts of administrators and teachers who laid down their lives for their students. God was there in the great calm granted to other teachers as they comforted their students, leading them hand-in-hand to havens of safety outside. God was there as reflected in the quick thinking of some teachers who hid their children in classroom closets and cupboards, and God was there in the warm embrace of first responders and churches who brought solace to the grieving. Evil showed up at Sandy Hook that day, but it was hardly a sign of God’s judgment. Rather, in the face of that evil our active and loving God was on the job as always, using people as divine instruments to bind up the wounds of the traumatized and the brokenhearted.

Conclusion

Dr. Dobson has earned the respect of many for giving sound advice on the family across the years, but in this instance, I think he misspoke, for the reasons I’ve outlined. Of course, this happens to all of us now and then. Hopefully he can revisit the issue in a later broadcast and clarify his remarks.

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Photo credit: Mark Davis