The problem of pain plagues believers. Put most simply, if God is love then he would want to stop meaningless suffering. If God is all powerful, then he is able to stop meaningless suffering. Meaningless suffering still exists, so which premise is incorrect?
Thomas Jay Oord offers a new way through this theological quandary by leveraging the implications of open theism.
For Oord, Christians have misunderstood God by putting Greek-style omnipotence (unlimited power) ahead of God’s love. For Oord, love comes first. God is love. And love cannot coerce—it cannot “control entirely” (183).
Imagine a relationship between two humans. A loving person allows the partner freedom to make choices and respond in answering love. A controlling partner is the antithesis of love.
There are many models of God’s providence (Oord lists seven) which run the spectrum from God as the all-controlling “omnicause” (83) to God as the completely incomprehensible wholly other. Oord locates his view, essential kenosis, in the middle of this spectrum.
Here is the one paragraph form of his model:
God’s eternal nature is uncontrolling love. Because of love, God necessarily provides freedom/agency to creatures, and God works by empowering and inspiring creation toward well-being. God also necessarily upholds the regularities of the universe because those regularities derive from God’s eternal nature of love. Randomness in the world and creaturely free will are genuine, and God is not a dictator mysteriously pulling the strings. God never controls others. But God sometimes acts miraculously, in noncoercive ways. God providentially guides and calls all creation toward love and beauty. (94)
This view of providence is jarring to Christians raised on classic systematic theologies. To understand this requires a massive shift that prioritizes love over power. Is this not what the cross emphasizes?
Let’s return to the syllogism we started with:
- God is all-powerful
- God is love
- Therefore God should prevent meaningless suffering
At first glance, essential kenosis appears to deny the first premise. Essential Kenosis states that God cannot utterly control his creation. How, then, can God be called Almighty in any meaningful sense? How do we deal with miracles?
An essentially kenotic God is still Almighty in at least three ways (189):
- God is “mightier than all others.”
- God is “the only One who exerts might upon all that exists.”
- God is “the ultimate source of might for all others.
This Almighty God can still work miracles, albeit in cooperation with creation. God does not arbitrarily break eternal laws that he set in order. God works from the inside, persuading his creation at all levels of existence to work towards shalom.
I struggle with this understanding of miracle. Oord’s description of God “calling upon free agents to act in ways that fit well with what God foreknows with a high probability will occur among systems of nature or inanimate objects” (210) feels like a semantic distinction. How does a “free agent” resist the persuading love of God? Does God have a scale gauged to the creature in question which tells him just how far he is able to persuade before persuasion becomes control?
The radical outbreak of God’s power in the life of Jesus—the confirming signs and wonders that accompanied the last days—also call the persuasive model of miracles into question. Do we attribute the increase of divine activity in and around the life of Jesus and the early church to an increasing of God’s persuasive power? If God is at times more or less persuasive in reducing suffering then we are back to the same issue essential kenosis avoids: God picks and chooses when to relieve suffering.
I enjoy struggling with these ideas. The Uncontrolling Love of God has wormed its way into my mind. Its greatest strength is how it recentralizes love as the defining characteristic of God. As Amos Yong wrote on the back cover, “this book secures Oord’s legacy as the theologian of love.” I find myself reflecting on Oord’s arguments often as I pray and minister.
I’ll close this review with Oords most memorable analogy:
Mermaids cannot run marathons, and a kenotic God cannot coerce. A controlling God of love is fictional. (181)
—Thomas Jay Oord, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence (Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015).