Review: The Uncontrolling Love of God

the uncontrolling love of God

The Uncontrolling Love of GodThomas Jay Oord. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2015.

Summary: Proposes a way of addressing God’s goodness and providence in the light of randomness, pointless suffering, and genuine evil by arguing for uncontrolling love as the cardinal attribute of God.

Random accidents where a tumbling rock kills a motorist. Terrible suffering that results from a random genetic mutation. Genuinely evil actions resulting in injury and death with no evident intervention of God. It is often said that as difficult as these things are to understand, they are all part of God’s sovereign and providential plan. Thomas Jay Oord finds these explanations unacceptable, and not just the trite versions of these explanations, but also those more theologically nuanced. They end up being susceptible to making God the cause of evil, or raise questions of why God fails to prevent evil, including random events if God is capable of doing so. Either God is sovereign but seems unloving; or God is loving but ineffectual.

In this book, Oord argues for a better account of the providence of God, rooted in an open and relational theology of God. He begins with an exploration of both the randomness and regularity that seems to exist even in the physical world for which our understanding of providence must account as well as the existence of both genuine evil and good in the world. He then outlines seven models of God’s providence that have been proposed, briefly critiquing each, except for model four, which he proposes as the most plausible:

  1. God is the omnicause.
  2. God empowers and overpowers.
  3. God is voluntarily self-limited.
  4. God is essentially kenotic.
  5. God sustains as impersonal force.
  6. God is initial creator and current observer.
  7. God’s ways are not our ways.

He then offers an overview of open and relational theology (and antecedent theological corollaries) for those who may not be familiar with this, since it is foundational to his argument. In brief, open and relational theology contends that God and his creatures relate and his creatures make a real difference to God; that the future is open and not determined and neither God nor his creatures know all that will occur; and that love is God’s chief attribute and primary lens for understanding God’s relations with his creation.

This last is crucial to Oord’s argument as he contends in the following chapter. Traditionally, theology begins with the primacy of the sovereign power of God over all creation, an error he believes even John Sanders, an open theologian falls prey to. Oord would argue that the love of God that is preeminent must be understood as uncontrolling love, and that this uncontrolling love governs God’s relations with his creation. He would contend that God has created a world with creatures (and he would extend this to the fundamental building blocks of the world) that he cannot control. It is not a question of whether or not God will intervene to control but that God will not act contrary to his character as a God of uncontrolling love. This accounts for randomness and for genuine evil in the world without making God either the cause of these, or implicating God for failure to prevent genuine evil.

Oord goes on to describe and elaborate this as the “essential kenotic model of providence.” Oord contends that Philippians 2:4-13, and indeed the gospels, are not about what attributes of God Jesus relinquished in the incarnation, but rather how the incarnation reveals the very nature of God, and that in his humbling even to death on a cross reveals the God who works through uncontrolling love to serve and redeem. Christ does not prevent the evil done against him, the evil choices of human beings, but through love works to accomplish our redemption. And in this, something is revealed of God’s essential character in which God works non-coercively. This raises the question of miracles, which Oord would define as God’s unusual, good, and special actions in relation to creation. His explanation recognizes the ways God often works in cooperation both with natural elements and human agents in these works for good and non-coercively. This was least convincing in considering the plagues of Egypt, including the death of Egypt’s first-born, or even Jesus’s cursing of the fruitless fig tree. In other instances, I felt Oord was in danger of explaining the miraculous in natural terms. I would propose this part of his case needed strengthening.

There is much in Oord’s account to consider, particularly in offering a strong account of how we may speak of the goodness and love of God in light of both random and genuine “evils” without reverting to trite platitudes that do not comfort, and actually make light of human suffering. I also appreciated the clarity of writing and argument I found in Oord. I do hope for a serious engagement of his ideas, particularly because of the important pastoral implications of these discussions.

I personally wrestle with fully embracing this view for some of the reasons that I wrestle with openness of God theology more generally. It situates God within time, and also seems to make “uncontrolling love” a kind of law God must obey that doesn’t allow for God to be more “complicated” in the exercise of God’s power (Oord does allow for God to be “almighty,” although within the constraint of “uncontrolling love”). In Narnian terms, it feels to me that the Aslan of open theology is a tame lion. I happen to think there are too many “messy counterfactuals” that this apparently logical and compelling argument inadequately address. Likewise, those who uphold traditional understandings of providence must address the unsatisfying character of their explanations. Might this be an instance where iron could sharpen iron?

This book won a 2016 IVP Readers Choice Award.

Review: The Problem of Pain

The Problem of Pain

The Problem of PainC. S. Lewis. New York: Harper Collins, 2015 (originally published 1940).

Summary: Lewis’s classic work exploring the existence of suffering and pain and how this is possible in a world made and sustained by a good and omnipotent God.

There is some sense a reviewer has when reviewing books like this to feel the mere “poser” and to be simply tempted to say, “read Lewis!” But that would be a very short review! So what I might do is simply suggest a few reasons why we might read Lewis on this subject.

One is that while the experience of suffering, even as Lewis acknowledges, requires of us fortitude when we ourselves face it and supportive sympathy when we walk along side friends in the midst of this, there are other times when we must take the larger view and ask “why pain and suffering?” And here, Lewis begins to help us because he observes that this is alike a question for the theist and the materialist. Particularly as we witness both the ravages of disease and the inhumanity of people against each other, it seems that this is a monstrous assault on our sense of the good. The fact that the central figure of Christianity suffered at the hand of evil himself is not in itself an answer to this question but only poses another–why this death?

Some of what Lewis does that is quite helpful is define terms. Omnipotence does not mean that God is able to do what is impossible because of who he is or what he has decreed, to do. For God to be good does not require that he make us happy. We must at least allow that suffering may not be contrary to a God who loves us and seeks our ultimate good.

He also helps us take a hard, and uncomfortable look at human wickedness, in itself, the source of much suffering and pain. We are fallen creatures, not simply by the fault of another but by our own active perversity.  We often minimize the “crooked timber” of our own lives even as we displace the focus onto God.  Pain, at least has the function of shattering our illusions that all is well, and we are sufficient in ourselves. It also calls us into the belief that holds onto God when there is no benefit in doing so.

He takes on the idea of hell, and perhaps most helpfully says that his aim is not to make the doctrine tolerable, for it is not, but to show that it may be moral, despite the objections raised. He observes that most of us do want to see retributive punishment and that we would find great offense in God forgiving one who remains unrepentant in great wickedness. He notes that eternal may be something different than an endlessly prolonged time. He also cautions against literal interpretations of vivid imagery.

His final chapters consider the question of animal pain and heaven. On animal pain, he cautions that there is much that we do not know about this, nor for that matter the ultimate destiny of animals. On heaven, Lewis observes that whereas hell is privation, heaven is the fulfillment of those deepest longings that we reach for and never quite grasp, that filling of a place in us that nothing has ever filled that being in the presence of God at last fills utterly and beyond measure.

The group with which I discussed this book had one quibble with Lewis. He states that when we reach the maximum of pain, the pain of another does not add to the sum total of the pain. While this may be true at a physical level, we did wonder about the emotional pain we experience when we witness the sufferings to others, particularly those inflicted by human cruelty. It also raises a question about the suffering of Christ. Was the pain he experienced as sin-bearer of humanity (if we believe this) any greater than bearing the sins of just one person? There was something in the way Lewis framed this that was unsatisfying, even if logically true.

This summer, the group I mentioned will probably be reading A Grief Observed, where all of Lewis’s ideas are tested in the crucible of the loss of his wife Joy. It will be interesting to see if this changed his thinking in any way, or to what extent his ideas helped him. Stay tuned!

Upcoming Reviews of New Works: March 2015

One of my “blog resolutions” for this year was to review more recently published works. I still will review “backlist” works simply because they are of interest to me, and I hope others as well. But I also realize that reviews of new works are helpful to others who hear about a recently published work and are deciding whether to read them. Here are some of the books on my TBR pile that I anticipate reviewing in the next month or two (links are to the publishers’ websites):

Minds, BrainsSufferingCollege Disrupted

1. Minds, Brains, Souls, and Gods by Malcolm Jeeves. Probably the oldest book on the pile with a 2013 publication date but dealing with a number of the current issues in neuroscience research and the implications of this for what we believe about what it means for us to be human and even the implications of claims for a “God spot” in the brain for our belief in God.

2. Suffering and the Search for Meaning by Richard Rice. I’m part way into this book on six different ways Christians deal with suffering, the problem of evil and God. Very clear, with numerous personal stories and yet good theological and philosophical depth.

3. College Disrupted by Ryan Craig. This book deals with the rising costs of college education and the ways college education is becoming “unbundled” to deal with these costs through MOOCs, other forms of online education, and cobbling together degrees through courses from various institutions.

A Glorious DarkNonviolent ActionA Year of Living PrayerfullyAccidental Executive4. A Glorious Dark by A.J. Swoboda. This book is described as dealing with the tension we often experience between what we believe and what we experience.

5. Nonviolent Action by Ronald J. Sider. Sider explores the common ground between just war and pacifism theorists on the ethical requirements upon Christians to pursue where possible nonviolent solutions to conflict.

6. A Year of Living Prayerfully by Jared Brock. Brock is a young activist who spent a year on a global “pilgrimage of prayer”. This book is his account of that journey.

7. The Accidental Executive by Albert M. Erisman. The book’s subtitle is “lessons on business, faith, and calling from the life of Joseph”. Erisman is a former Boeing executive.

These aren’t the only books I anticipate reading but are some of the new (or newer) titles you can anticipate on the blog! I realize that all of this is non-fiction. If any of you have suggestions of quality fiction you think I should read, I’d be glad to hear from you!

If you want to be sure to catch the reviews of these and other books as well as other thoughts on books, reading, and life, I hope you will consider following the blog. If you have a WordPress account, just click the “follow” section of the black header. If you do not, just click the blue “Follow” button that appears near the top of my pages and WordPress will send you email previews of my blog posts.

Review: Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering

Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering
Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering by Ronald E. Osborn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The problem of predation, animal suffering and death has always posed a theological challenge to those believing in a good God. Those who believe in a literal six day creation and young earth believe the problem is solved by attributing it to the curse following human sin. But this poses the question of why should animals be cursed for what humans did, and may not be supportable in the Genesis text. Likewise, for those who believe in some form of old earth creation or theistic evolution, the problem is that this assumes animal predation, suffering, and death prior to human sin and the question is how can it be argued that God and his creation are “good” if these things occur even before sin entered the picture?

This latter problem is the focus of Osburn’s book, or at least part of the focus. The surprise is that most of his treatment of this question is in the last third of the book. The prior two thirds are devoted to the problem of biblical literalism and our attempts to reconcile biblical accounts of beginnings with what scientific research has uncovered.

He begins by showing that a plain reading of Genesis in its ancient near east context does not require the young earth, scientific creationist reading. The next four chapters are devoted to why this reading is so problematic in terms of hermeneutics, science and reason. He basically contends that the “scientific creationism” movement unwittingly cedes too much to modernism and foundationalist assumptions in its attempt to prove Genesis with science.

He then looks at the sub-culture behind these readings describing them in the next two chapters as a gnostic enclave. He observes the “circle the wagons” and “purge ourselves of those who disagree” tendencies along with a tendency to assume a “knowledge for the pure few” stance that regards others as inferior–a kind of gnosticism. While I’ve observed some examples of this, I felt this section “over the top” and not helpful to his argument. He concludes the first section by citing Barth, Calvin, Augustine, and Maimonides as non-literalist interpreters and argued for a post-foundationalist reading of Genesis with the rest of scripture seeing a “web” of truth.

The second part of the book first critiques the position of animal suffering only being post-fall under the categories of “stasis”, “curse”, and “deception.” He then considers the cosmic conflict position of C.S. Lewis but thinks this gives Satan too much credit. He argues for a position based on Job 38-42 that somehow in a way that is unanswered, this suffering is part of God’s good creation. He cites Kathryn Schifferdecker in concluding this chapter: “But submission to God…means learning to “learning to live in the untamed, dangerous, but stunningly beautiful world that is God’s creation'” (p. 156).

He also argues that it is Christ’s kenotic suffering that closes the circle of the six days of creation as he suffers and dies on sabbath eve bringing true sabbath rest to creation. As an Adventist, Osburn argues for the continuing relevance of sabbath in the church’s practice and that this includes concern for needless animal suffering.

This interesting proposal was marred, in my view, by raising at points the question of whether there was a literal Adam, and calling into question the idea of substitutionary atonement, something that seems a trend among “progressive evangelicals.” He also launches at the end of the penultimate chapter on the evils of “late capitalism” and the question of whether our existence as a species is justified in light of our destructiveness.

Osburn writes with eloquence and elegance about all these matters, but I believe also out of the pain of his own church roots. I felt he distracted at points from good argument with tendentious statements. In the hotly contended area of origins, if one is to write irenically, it seems necessary to choose battles very carefully. My sense is that this book took on too many battles that rendered it less helpful than it could be. I wish the author would have focused more on the title theme and gone into greater depth on these issues.

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