The Beauty of Love: Learning from Thomas Jay Oord

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As the events at Northwest Nazarene University continue to unravel in the coming weeks, I wanted to offer some positive words about my good friend Tom Oord, and perhaps introduce him to those who know the man of the books, but could also benefit from knowing the man behind them.

It was the year 2003 and I was a senior Religion major at Trevecca Nazarene University. I had worked hard, emerged from the cocoon of my theological raising, and spent the last 4 years of my life preparing for ministry. For my efforts, the Religion  Dept at TNU granted me the Systematic Theology Award for my graduating class. We had lots of smart folks in my class that year, folks whom I highly respect, so getting this award was a surprise even as it was an affirmation of how hard I had worked, how much I had read and the newly assimilated theology I was beginning to develop.

The award didn’t grant a person much, just bragging rights and a piece of paper with my theology professor’s signature (Dr. Henry Spaulding, now president of Mount Vernon Nazarene University). It also included a 25$ gift card to Cokesbury bookstore in downtown Nashville. My four years at TNU taught me to love books…making this 25$ almost as awesome as the award itself.

I’ll never forget the book I bought.

I perused the shelves and looked at all the textual options until I came across a book edited by a fellow Nazarene, a scholar with whom I had only began to become acquainted in my studies at TNU. The book was Tom Oord’s dual editorial with Bryan P. Stone, Thy Name and Nature is Love: Wesleyan and Process Theologies in Dialogue. This book absolutely peeked my interest. I had begun to really appreciate process theology at the time (at least as much as an undergrad religion major could) and was definitely interested in seeing how my Wesleyan roots might connect with this more progressive theological movement that placed a heavy emphasis on God’s relationship with creation, rather than God’s relationship above or in juxtaposition to it.

Tom’s article “A Process Wesleyan Theodicy: Freedom, Embodiment, and The Almighty God,” radically shaped the way I thought about Theodicy, a theme that was very important in his earlier work and continues to echo in his more direct explorations of Love. One could argue that this early essay is an issue that continues to motivate Tom as he continues to think about things like sin, death, evil, salvation and freedom in light of God’s name and nature of holy love.

As a young theology student I was really struggling with ideas central to the idea of God and our doctrine of such. One thing I came out of TNU clearly convinced of: classical theism and Greek Metaphysical theologies couched in the Bible didn’t make a lot of sense to me. I needed something more and I needed it to be more biblical and more Wesleyan.

Tom gave that to me.

He talked about how we as creatures are free and that God does not over-ride our freedom even to perform God’s will. He discussed the nature of evil and how God wishes to deal with evil through the almighty persuasion of human bodies to shape history and proclaim God’s goodness. The concept of “indirect bodily impact,” that God chooses to shape the world through us, not in spite of us, made a lot of sense methodologically and it was consistent with the ideas that God is holy, God is love, and we as creatures are free.

Most indicting in this essay is when Tom is busy being a great teacher and delineating differences of various theodicy’s employed in the church. Once he outlined multiple ways of talking about God’s absolute power in relation to conditional evil in the world, he gets to the crux of the matter. We can’t talk about God as being all-powerful in the traditional way of understanding that statement without God in some way being culpable for evil that God could otherwise prevent. If God is a God of perfect love, and that love is in some way intelligible, we must be able to speak in some way positively about that perfect love. He says it like this, “Because the God of accidental free-will theism fails to override or withdraw the freedom of such perpetrators, attributing perfect love to this God seems implausible.”

In other words, to have the power to prevent evil, and then not prevent it, makes one culpable for the action…and its hard to ascribe that sort of willful declension as loving.

He goes on to argue that God is not culpable for evil because God allows the world to be free and such freedom cannot be over-ridden by God. Thus God’s power must be understood in ways that are more relational and not coercive. This is where divine persuasion and love comes into the mix and Tom speaks of how scripture demonstrates to us God’s loving insistence to persuade humans to act, rather than coerce them to do. (a take that is also empirically verified in our daily lives)

This theodicy has proven indispensible to me as a Wesleyan thinker and pastor because it takes serious our Wesleyan insistence that God is love and God is relational…and that holiness is located in a relational holiness between God, world and others. Tom is simply trying to make theological and philosophical sense of how that might best work in a way that is methodologically responsible and also avoid creating a bastard theological hybrid between Wesleyanism and Calvinism, a marriage that never did make pretty babies.

In 2004, at the Wesleyan Theological Society’ meeting in Seattle, I met Tom Oord for the first time. I asked him some questions about this essay. He didn’t know me from Adam, but I remember the hospitality with which he engaged me and took me seriously. I followed that meeting up with emails and Tom always gave me thorough responses. He treated me as if I was one of his students, not the alum of a sister institution for which he had no time.

Since this first essay and meeting with Tom, I have learned that Tom is second to none in his support of young scholars in our tradition.

In 2009, I gave a paper at WTS in the science and theology section. Tom Oord was the head of that section and accepted my paper for presentation. Later in 2009, over some science and freedom discussions, Tom sent me a complimentary copy of his book Creation Made Free. The only caveat was he asked I write a review and get it published. I did so and that review appeared in the Review and Expositor: A Baptist Consortium Journal that same year. In 2011, I attended the Bible Tells Me So conference in Nampa, ID. After the conference, I noticed the intended publication from that conference did not include a particular essay that I found profoundly important on the relationship between the Academy and the Church. I wrote Tom. I don’t know what happened behind the scenes, but the essay was included in the final text. Later in 2011, I told Tom a fellow pastor and myself were going to read his text Defining Love. He sent me two copies, both signed, and even asked how the study went. In 2012, I asked Tom about proposing a paper on Arminius and Inter-religious Dialogue at the upcoming WTS in Nashville. I also wanted to get it published in the WTJ. After inquiring with Tom, he encouraged me to propose the paper, that it had a good chance of publication. In 2013, my first WTJ article appeared in the Spring 2013 Issue. And lastly, when I was applying to do Phd at Emory, Tom spent 45 minutes with me on the phone discussing a career in the academy.

Had it not been for Tom Oord, there is much I would not have learned from his multiple books, but there are also many chances I would not have been given in our tradition. Without his help, the doors of Wesleyan academia would probably have remained shut to me.

My seminary degree was done at a Bapstist institution. I have had multiple chances to publish in print and online, give papers and be a part of projects through my Baptist connections. I have had zero opportunity in my own tradition, except what has been granted by the hospitality of Tom Oord, the gifts he saw in me and the gift of his friendship. I never had him as a professor, but he has worked with me as if I was one of his students.

Our tradition needs teachers like Tom Oord.

We need scholars that provide us with a broad theological landscape and challenge us to think through our ideas not just with our existing ideas. We need scholars that will drop the proverbial Barthian Bomb on our theological playground and equip us with the tools to engage the world with responsible and mature reflection. We need teachers with whom we may not always agree, because in disagreeing, we may be given a stronger intellect if it leads to a more thorough discovery of the weaknesses of our position. We need folks like Tom Oord that aren’t content to just give us buzz words and pledge allegiance to the old guard, but really believe our theology of holy love is worth doing…but it must be done right and without trite. And lastly, we need scholars like Tom who will stand beside young scholars, encourage, equip and give them the opportunities they need to be the future teachers of the church…teachers who aren’t worried about the good ole boy Wesleyan or Nazarene club but sincerely want to shape the future through influencing young scholars.

I am thankful for the decade long history I have with Tom Oord. He has shaped me in ways he’ll never know…but I do know I am simply one among many to have been changed by his life and work.

I am thankful for the ministry and academics of Tom Oord. I am thankful for his friendship. And I am thankful for what is happening on NNU’s campus as some of the steps of recent days are being reconsidered. The truth is, despite everyone being worried about Tom’s future, the real future we should be worried about is ours. Administrations may think they are doing Tom a favor if they let him keep his post, but the reality is, We, our tradition, need Tom…perhaps even more than he needs us.

So Tom, thank you for who you are, what you stand for and all you do. Your efforts have not returned void.

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