Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the Christian tradition, my tradition, she is rightly honored as the theotokos, the bearer of God. Unfortunately, Mary is far too often white-washed into an American picture of a submissive woman, a passive agent in the Christmas story otherwise dominated by men and single-mindedly focused on a male child. However, Mary should be seen as one of the ultimate heroes of our Christian faith.
It was Mary, knowing the possible consequences of her suspicious pregnancy (The Virgin Mary on Trial), who said “Yes” to God’s outrageous and dangerous plan of salvation. May we have her courageous obedience.
It was Mary who bore a child whose status, even as an infant, caused her to flee to Egypt as a refugee. It was Mary who braved and survived the brutal slaughter and savage man(child)-hunt of a megalomaniac “king.” May we have her brave endurance.
It was Mary who stood up in a world of injustice and loudly declared that the Lord was going to topple the powers that be, exalt the lowly, send the rich away and fill the hungry. Her Magnificat, the first and oldest Advent hymn, is a political and social subversive celebration that the justice of God was now powerfully breaking into the evil world of injustice. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized, her hymn is “the most passionate, most vehement, one might say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world, of God’s power and of the powerlessness of men.” May we have her subversive orientation to the work of God’s Kingdom coming through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
I had the privilege of asking Thomas a few questions about his upcoming book. I hope you enjoy the interview and I encourage you to order the book as soon as possible!
Thomas – first let me say thanks for agreeing to let me ask you a few questions about your upcoming book “The Uncontrolling Love of God.” We are still a week away from the official release of your book and it is already #1 on the following Amazon lists: Systematic Theology, Science and Religion, and Christian Death and Grief. Did you expect such an amazing (and early) response to this work?
Every author I know dreams about having his or her book being widely read and showing up on best-selling lists. So I am obviously pleased the book is being received so warmly. I didn’t expect a response this big! Perhaps one reason for its best-selling status is that it address big and complex questions using language understandable to the masses. I am a scholar who writes technical theological and philosophical material. But I worked very hard to write this book in an accessible way.
Your book will likely create controversy, particularly among conservative Christians outside of the academy. What would you say to someone who might initially feel like passing up your work based on their assumptions about both their views and yours?
I had dinner with Juergen Moltmann recently. During the conversation, he looked me in the eye and said, “Theology is supposed to be controversial!” I took him to be saying that the ideas about God — theology — should always stretch us, because a total grasp of God is always beyond our reach.
I recognize that some people will feel uncomfortable when I address big and complex questions and then pose plausible but novel answers. I hope my proposals will be helpful to many people. And I never expect everyone to agree with me. I appreciate robust dialogue when done in love. I hope to offer winsome and persuasive reasons for the hope within me. When some readers find my proposals helpful, I’m deeply satisfied!
Your conclusions in The Uncontrolling Love of God might be very different from what many readers learned growing up, believe, or are maybe currently teaching. Why do you think so much of Christianity has missed this key insight into the nature of God and his interaction with the world?
Too many people start their theological reflection with the idea that God is a sovereign king or ruling Lord. This starting point is one some theologians consciously affirm but many others affirm it unconsciously. This goes for Christians and non Christians.
For instance, we have Hollywood blockbusters titled “Bruce Almighty” and “Evan Almighty.” But I doubt film producers thought even once about a movie about God with the titles “Bruce All-Loving” or “Evan Omnibenevolent.” The default for many is absolute omnipotence.
But I think Christians ought to be first to say, “When we do theology, we’ll start with God’s love and then work out the other attributes in light of love.” Maybe if we imagined God as the ideal parent instead of the controlling monarch we could do theology in ways I think are more faithful to the broad biblical witness.
Your book brings together theology and science in a unique way. How does science influence your theological work? Do you think that there is a shortcoming in theology when it comes to letting the conclusions of science interact with theological issues?
In my view, contemporary experience, in its various forms, inevitably influences our reflections about God and theology. To think about God well, therefore, we need to think about the world well.
Science is one of the most powerful expressions of human existence. Theologians ignore science at their own peril. In my view, overall proposals for explaining existence must include what we think are the best in theology, science, philosophy, and more. The most convincing theology is multi-disciplinary.
Your book also has a uniquely pastoral tone to is as you deal with the problem of evil and suffering in our world. Is this a purely academic exploration for you or are there personal experiences that drive your work as well?
We all deal with evil. But some people deal with it more directly and deeply than others. My own life is not much different from most who experience pain. And my own questions about God’s activity in relation to evil are similar to the questions others have. So I’m not unusual in that way.
I think Christians too often focus either on pastoral responses to evil or theoretical proposals to the problem evil. Most pastoral responses fail to address adequately the question, “Why didn’t God stop this evil in the first place?” Most theoretical proposals fail to take seriously the personal and therapeutic dimensions to suffering and tend to focus on some version of the best of all possible worlds defense. Few solutions to the problem of evil address both pastoral and theoretical aspects. I try to do both, although there is always more that could be said!
I’ve personally been keen of your formulation of “essential kenosis” since I first read “Nature of Love.” I know that stands at the center of this book as well. If you had to pick one or two ideas other than essential kenosis that serves a foundation for your thesis, what would it/they be?
You’re right that the notions of essential kenosis form the heart of the book. They do so, because questions of the nature of God’s love and power are central to essential kenosis. And getting clear about what we mean by God’s love and God’s power is crucial for so many aspects of theology.
On a technical side, I think one of my major contributions in the book is my explanation for why love is logically prior to power in God’s nature. This view entails, for instance, that we rightly say God cannot do some things, because love does not allow God to do them. To use the Apostle Paul’s language, “God cannot deny himself.”
Another key idea in the book is that randomness, chance, or indeterminacy are real for us and for God. God cannot foreknow the entire future, either the free actions of complex creatures or the random events in the universe. Few theologians have admitted that randomness is real even for God and then worked this into their understanding of God’s providence. For someone like me who thinks love comes first in God’s nature, however, it is natural to think God cannot control creaturely freedom but also cannot control random events at the micro or macro levels of life.
I know that the process of writing often is a time of clarifying ideas and connecting new thoughts. Did any of your conclusions in “The Uncontrolling Love of God” surprise you once you had finished the book?
Two things come quickly to mind.
1) When doing additional research, I discovered that many theologians in the Christian tradition have said that God cannot act in certain ways. In other words, they thought God’s omnipotence is never absolute and always has limits. Jacob Arminius even goes so far as to list many thing God cannot do!
2) I gained far greater clarity than I had before on the relation of God to the so called “laws of nature.” I came to realize that it makes little sense to talk about “laws of nature” and more sense to talk about “law-like regularities” in the world. My novel proposal, consequently, is to argue that these law-like regularities derive from God’s steadfast love for all creation, including the smallest entities of existence and the most complex. Because God must love all others, God cannot interrupt the law-like regularities in the universe that originate from God’s steadfast love.
Thomas, thanks once again for taking the time to answer my questions. Blessings on you and your work!
“As a faithful child of the Enlightenment, I must admit that just the thought of adopting a theological hermeneutic makes me nervous. However, perhaps it is time for me (and ultimately us – the Church) to embrace our rightful identities as children of promise. Children who once again let the word be near us, in our mouths, and in our hearts.”
I wrote these sentences as the conclusion to one of my first graduate school papers – a review of Richard Hays’ The Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul. Little did I know that these words would be a strangely prophetic description of the theological formation that I would receive during my graduate education. I walked with a M.A. in Theological Studies from Houston Baptist University on May 19, 2014 and I could not be more thankful for my time there. I was blessed financially with various grants and with the Sharon E. Saunders Endowed Graduate Scholarship, I was fortunate to study under an amazing group of professors (such as Dr. Ben Blackwell and Dr. Randy Hatchett, picture above) that stretched, loved, challenged, and encouraged me, and I now recognize that I am a more faithful Christian thinker because of my studies.
As I reflect on the many ways in which my thinking has been transformed over the past few years, I continually return to the image of “rebellion.” That is to say, my graduate studies taught me to rebel against the Enlightenment and its strangle-hold over much of Christian thinking. The Enlightenment taught me to read Scripture scientifically, skeptically, surgically, and objectively. It also groomed me to reject tradition, look arrogantly at the past, and stand alone as an individual. Now, however, I find myself leaving my graduate studies as a “child of promise” – committed to reading theologically, embracing & exploring the heritage of the church, and living and learning as a distinctively Christian person.
A few of the lessons I learned:
 The Importance of the Church: The House that God Built
I once accepted the Enlightenment’s assumption that exegesis and theology could be (and sometimes were best) done outside of the church. I now accept the limitations of the pursuit of pure objectivity and even believe, like the Fathers, that only as a Spirit-filled Christian can I do proper and faithful exegetical and theological work. Before my graduate studies, I hoped to work in the academic world far away from the messiness of the church. Now, I’m enslaved to the conviction that Christian academics must be immersed in and useful to the local church. I entered my graduate studies knowing little about church history and caring even less. Who cared about how Origen translated a certain passage when I’ve got the best Hebrew & Greek tools in history available to me and am free of his cultural limitations? However, I now know how important church history is and indeed have found myself with a deep love for the study of patristics. In fact, I wrote my master’s thesis on Cyril of Alexandria’s Interpretation of Romans 5:12-21 and his use of the Adam-Christ Typology. If you told me that would be my topic as an exegetically-focused undergrad, I would have called you crazy. Now, I can’t imagine anything more worthwhile than studying all the depths, contours, and messiness of the Church Fathers’ lives and works.
 The Beautiful Necessity of Theology: Working with Spirit-Filled Words
My undergrad major was in Biblical Languages – Hebrew and Greek. This meant that I largely focused on and valued biblical studies. Actually, I often thought theological studies were pointless – why make these big conclusions when there are so many debatable issues surrounding the exegetical decisions on which they rest? I thought that systematic theologies were good for nothing except misinterpreting biblical passages. I was focused on the trees (exegesis), finding so much ambiguity/excitement there that I couldn’t understand the need or ability to debate or expound upon theological ideas (the forest) which were often foreign to the biblical text. Now, I am immersed in theology. I think theologically, I pray theologically, and I even read the Bible theologically. (Go figure!) I think terms like “the hypostatic union” and “perichoresis” are hugely important to grasping the depth of the beauty of God and his work in Christ. Once again, the Spirit-given words of the Church have opened my eyes up to a bigger and better faith, as well as a better means of reading the Scripture.
 An Invitation to the Vocation of Scholarship: The Mind As A Means To Worship
My graduate studies continued to instill in me a lesson which began during my undergraduate work: the truth that loving God with all of your mind is an extremely important call to an incredibly difficult task. Too many in the Evangelical church (and even in seminaries) treat the pursuit of academic excellence with shallowness and immaturity. HBU does a fine job of exemplifying a commitment to Christian excellenc (see their 10 Pillars Vision). Not only was I deeply challenged to engage with the best thinkers of history and of our day, I was also encouraged to put my voice alongside them. Thus, through the help of professor Ben Blackwell, I submitted and presented my first paper at an SBL/AAR conference. This, and other opportunities like it, were only possible because of the standard of excellence required and the personal mentorship provided to ensure that I could meet it.
I’ll end this post by saying thanks and offering some encouragement.
First: Thank you, Houston Baptist University. Thank you, as well, Dr. Ben Blackwell, Dr. Randy Hatchett, Dr. David Capes, Dr. Peter Davids, Dr. Joseph Blair, Dr. Felisi Sorgwe, Dr. Jamie Johns, and all of the many others who shared their passion and knowledge of the Scriptures and theology.
Second: No matter who you are, no matter how old you are, no matter how much time you have, & no matter how “smart” you think you are – avail yourself of the many resources all around you so that you might further learn how to think and live faithfully. Who knows, we might run into each other one day on the other side of the Enlightenment. 🙂
I find it strange to hear others speak freely about an addiction. The world of an addict is a world without the freedom of speech. A memoir about addiction makes even less sense to me. Addictions create warped realities devoid of honest reflections. How would I classify my relationship with that pill? That little white pill. I’m not sure. But it wasn’t an addiction.
Okay. Technically I couldn’t stop taking it. Suffocating under an unyielding panic and its accompanying depression, I couldn’t function without it’s calming and euphoric touch. This powerful, little white pill. It started as a prescription – a medical effort aimed at meeting the challenges posed by my failing health. It wasn’t long until my Rx number transformed into my prisoner identification. This was a one-sided relationship, because I could no longer stand to be awake without it’s powerful presence. Without her powerful presence. She possessed me in a way that only an intoxicating lover could. Dilated eyes and slow, steady breathing became a staple of my consciousness. One pill became three, and three became six, and all the while the ticking of the clock served as a continual reminder to be prepared for my next dose. I wasn’t an addict. I was a survivor. Such a subtle difference can only be appreciated inside of such a painful reality. My father was right when he accused me of being unable to live without it. But it wasn’t an addiction.
Sure. Technically I had withdrawal symptoms when I was eventually forced off of it. But that was strictly a physiological phenomenon. My brain simply wasn’t used to the decreased levels and efficiency of gamma aminobutyric acid which I was now abandoned to. The cold sweats and insomnia were nothing more than a re-adjustment to a different sort of mental life. The inability to self-mediate would sometimes smother me. But it wasn’t an addiction.
Of course there are times when I am still tempted.These moments force me to work creatively, desperate for a way to distract myself. Distract myself from thinking about that beautiful, little white pill. The soft powder that would cascade off of it like snow from the mountainside. The swallow of relief. The surge of relaxation. The flood of peace. The steadying of my pulse. Yes, often I must stop myself from being consumed with the thoughts. There are days that my ghosts begin crying out to me again. Days when the only option to my suffering seems to be my never-forgotten friend. Days when I wonder if I will ever have an immediate reaction to pain that doesn’t involve her. Still, it wasn’t an addiction.
I reflect on our relationship like a husband dwells on his shattered marriage. A curious mixture of nostalgia and disgust. A peculiar combination of longing and resentment. Words remain outside my grasp. I fumble over sentences like a young boy explaining his first kiss. I don’t think a memoir about an addiction can be written with integrity. But then again, I’ve never had one.
*This is an essay I wrote a few years ago for a creative writing class. It’s a bit different from the normal content here at Cataclysmic -but no worries, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming soon. If you enjoyed it and/or would like more, let me know!
What if the world was originally created as a matriarchy?
(*cue dramatic gasp*)
John Howard Yoder often explored this possibility by laying out the following pieces of evidence [discussed in Nugent’s The Politics of Jesus, 26-28]:
 The Word “Helper”
Yoder claims that the connotation of subordination which “helper” has in English is not present with the Hebrew word. The other 5 times the word appears in the Pentateuch it always refers to God. It appears that Eve is the crown of creation, who fills in a gap in the original creation. The point seems to be that the man is dependent on the woman (not vice versa). The man was called to leave his family and build his life around his wife (Gen. 2:24). The Edenic culture depended on what Ancient Israelites would have seems as women’s duties (gardening and gathering) as opposed to men’s duties (hunting and fighting).
2) The Role of Eve in the “Fall”
If the evidence above is accepted as portraying Eve in a unique leadership role (pre-Fall), it then causes one to read the narrative of the fall in a different light. Interestingly, the serpent approaches Eve, not Adam. What if this is not because she is weak and easily deceived, but because she was seen as the natural decision-maker? After Eve’s choice, Adam eats what is set before him without any hesitation.
3) The Curses as Reversals
The curses that come because of the Fall are a reversal of things as they were in the prelapsarian state (animal roles are reversed, joy of birth is overcome with pain and death, those given charge over creation are now its slaves, life-giving ground now receives death, etc). Among all these reversals, it is noteworthy that a matriarchal structure gives way to a patriarchal lordship. This in fact leads Yoder to an interesting interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:11-15 as he sees Jesus’ redemptive work as restoring the dignity of women (for another post, perhaps).
I’m not sure I’m completely convinced by Yoder, but it’s an interesting alternative reading.
What do you think?
Do you agree that the world was structured as a matriarchy before sin entered in and brought death?