Thomas Jay Oord is a professor at Northwest Nazarene University who is perhaps best known for his theological approach to the topic of God’s love. He is also the author of the upcoming book, “The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relation Approach to Providence.” You can watch this video to see the basic thesis of Oord’s new work or read this blog post to see his theology “in action” after the Paris terrorist attacks.
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!
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!