If God is all loving, why does God not prevent evil? According to Thomas Jay Oord, the answer is because God can’t. In his book, God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love After Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evil, Oord addresses the problem of evil by arguing for a disembodied, omniloving, and omnipresent God whose sovereignty is self-giving, all-loving, and inherently uncontrolling. Oord’s intention is to “provide the solution to why evil occurs and a loving God doesn’t stop it” (11). Echoing positions most closely associated with open theism, Oord constructs a God whose “loving nature determines, shapes, or governs what God can do” (27). For Oord, the uncontrolling nature of God’s love dictates the extent to which God can intervene in human affairs. Oord argues that he is not placing external limitations on God. The author writes that the constraints that limit God’s ability to act are internally driven by a love which permits the type of contingencies that, regrettably, often culminate in tragedy. This is because “love does not manipulate, dominate, or dictate in ways that allow no response” (27). Oord refers to this set of limitations as “essential kenosis” (28). Essential kenosis, with kenosis translating to “self-giving” or “self-emptying,” means that because God cannot “fail to provide freedom, agency, and existence to creation,” God must maintain a spiritual presence on earth that is empowering but not overpowering (28).
In other words, if God’s nature is one of love and love does not control, then any intervention by the divine to override evil once and for all would be contradictory to God’s nature. Moreover, this action would conflict with human freedom. Since authentic love never controls, God must work alongside constantly changing factors, agents, and causes rather than exert force over them to produce specific outcomes. For Oord, this is the difference between believing that God won’t and understanding that God can’t. It is a crucial distinction, as a God who can intervene but decides not to is not a God whom humanity can trust nor one who can be described as all-loving. Such a God would offer no paradigm by which to judge goodness or help us assess what is ultimately important in life, Oord argues. Despite these constraints, God maintains the ability to empathize with our pain, even helping us overcome the trauma we experience. Here, the need for empathy and cooperation among human agents is central to Oord’s understanding of how God operates in the world. God’s love requires participation as God works through individuals who open themselves up to a loving partnership with the divine. According to Oord, “our working together with God plays an essential role in solving the problems of evil” (141). Ultimately, Oord provides a theodicy which rejects the belief that tragedy implies wrongdoing on the part of the sufferer and instead introduces a deeply relational vision of the divine intended to nurture reconciliation between creator and creation.
Oord’s basic argument is easy to follow. However, his failure to expand upon important theological concepts dilutes the strength of his case. This is especially evident where it concerns Oord’s presentation of God’s function as a creator. Oord only generally defines God’s role, writing, “as creator, God gives existence to all creation” (28). Here, the extent of God’s creative capacities is ambiguous and important metaphysical concerns, such as God’s relationship to time and causality, are never sufficiently addressed. This creates a problem, as the author does not clarify why an eternal God who embodies uncontrolling love would actively choose to create a world in which human choices are predominately made in response to environmental factors that we had no say in shaping.
In his other works, Oord argues that evolutionary theory is compatible with biblical teachings. This position is implicit in God Can’t. However, one has to wonder how a process as unforgiving as evolution reflects the imagination of an all-loving creator. Oord accounts for the biological calamities we encounter, such as mutations that become cancer cells, by arguing that God’s uncontrolling nature and physical disembodiment prevent any direct intervention in matters that concern our health and safety. However, he offers no causal explanation as to why a cell must have the potential to divide uncontrollably until it becomes glioblastoma, nor does he resolve the inconsistencies present in understanding evil as a natural corollary to human agency. This brings God’s innate goodness into question. Oord argues that what humans regard as loving overlaps with what God believes is loving, implying that we can intuit the moral character of the divine. Yet, the goodness of a God who would create through a system of predation and chance is anything but intuitive. Oord might respond that God cannot act in a way that contradicts God’s own nature which, according to Oord, is one characterized by uncontrolling love. But, Oord does not justify why God’s loving nature precludes a creative process which is, at the very least, free from brain tumors capable of facilitating homicidal behavior, for example. Like some theologians, we could vindicate God from all culpability by simply viewing God’s creative decisions as a divine mystery but, as Oord points out, “if we cannot know what is good, it makes no sense to say that God is good” (39). Perhaps Oord has a compelling response to the criticisms raised here. However, without further clarification, Oord does not succeed in his effort to resolve the problem of evil.
Taylor Thomas is a doctoral student at Boston University School of Theology.
Date Of Review:
February 24, 2021
Thomas Jay Oord is professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University.
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