God Can’t: A Review

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“We don’t need the bible to know evil sucks,” writes Tom Oord, who has now taken off the gloves in his forthcoming work, God Can’t. In what might be his most transparently honest work to date, Tom goes after the Golden Calf of Christian theology: the idea that God Can do anything. Hang on tight because this is a ride you do not want to miss.

For people of faith, there is little more polarizing than the statement “God Can’t.” In fact, those words do not make much sense. Isn’t part of what makes God God that God can do anything? If there is something God cannot do wouldn’t God be barely more than us mere mortals? Many people of faith hold to their faith precisely because the God they believe in can do whatever he needs to, when he needs to, to make their life better or save them from peril. This idea is the great security blanket of believers, for even though God may never do the many things ascribed to “him” it is comforting to know that he could. We may never meet a divine superman, but its good to know he’s in the building just in case.

But what do we do when we run head up against the inexplicable evil of life and superman doesn’t show up? When we pray, hope, trust in God, yet nothing changes, or  worse, further bad things happen?

Does God become nothing more than the ultimate fudge factor by which we give reason for our suffering? Rather than God becoming a deliverer from our suffering, God becomes the cause and excuse of it, the way we rationalize it (“everything happens for a reason” or “God’s ways are higher than our ways” they say).

Yet, how does one make sense of God’s love, or the idea of God as a loving God, while also contending that God restrains his power to allow evil to happen to us for some “higher” purpose?

What higher purpose could come from the family whose child suffocates in their car from heat exhaustion, or drowns in the pool because the family lost track of 2-3 minutes, or allowed someone to be sold into sex trafficking and abused for a decade? Are these genuinely evil things really a part of God’s plan? Are these things that a loving God would allow if God had the power to change yet for some reason higher than human reason does not intervene?

Tom Oord’s recent book, God Can’t, tackles these tough questions with an emphatic answer: Genuine evil happens to us and there is absolutely nothing God can do about it by himself. It’s not that God chooses to not intervene or has limited his power in some way; it’s that God is metaphysically incapable of physically intervening in the world to prevent these random acts of evil. It’s not God’s choice to refrain from acting, God is limited by his nature and essential characteristics. To use Tom’s language, God is the God of Uncontrollling Love. God loves us but that love is never demonstrated in coercive ways, either for good or ill. Tom’s not letting God off the hook for bad things, he’s simply saying God was never on the hook to begin with.

In other words, there are some things God simply can’t do, but don’t lose heart because the acknowledgment that “God Can’t” do some things opens a whole host of things God can, and does, do to work in creation, it just looks different than the Godly superman we have all learned to adore.

Foremost, if one has become an atheist or left the church because of inexplicable suffering or evil that was glossed/excused by their pastor or by those who tell us “everything happens for a reason,” the goodnews that Tom presents is that you can still believe in God and love despite your suffering. You can still believe in God because God is not the source of all your suffering. You don’t have to abandon belief or faith. In fact, God suffers with you in your suffering and wishes the evil that happened to you had never occurred.

Tom’s starting point theologically, is Wesleyan, and as such his assumptions about God do not begin with the traditional categories of omnipotence, omniscience or Thomistic Simplicity. Unlike many theologians, Tom’s presupposition about God could be best labeled omni-altruistic: God is at all times, and all places, acting in love. And this is how we know where God is acting: God is present where love is found and incarnated, where creation flourishes anywhere in the universe love is found. Further, as creatures we can know what love is and need not be mystified or chalk up to mystery trying to understand evil that happens to us as God’s means of loving us.

While this may sound radical, it is a radicality grounded in experience, reason, scripture, and yes, even tradition. This radical rethinking of traditional ideas of God is staged in the Introduction as Tom illustrates for us the tensions found between believing in God while simultaneously witnessing the horrific suffering of hundreds via the recent Las Vegas shooting tragedy in which 58 people were killed and 851 others injured. Tom frames the problem like this

“Many people think God had the power to prevent the Las Vegas shooting, its deaths, injuries, and resulting trauma. They think God could have warned officials, temporarily paralyzed the gunman, jammed the rifles, or redirected every bullet flying 400 yards. They assume God has the ability to do just about anything…After the shooting, some “explained” why God failed to stop the tragedy. “There’s a higher purpose in this,” they said. Others appealed to mystery: “We just can’t understand God’s ways”

This, of course, begs the obvious question: If God is loving, and if God stands against violence and evil, and God also has the power to stop it, why doesn’t God stop it? It is little wonder many have become atheists over these questions.

What is at stake is nothing more than the morality of God.

Tom divides his argument into 5 ideas. They are necessarily disclosed in chapters but what’s really happening is the argument that God Can’t is presented in 5 clear ideas, each building on the other, until the reader has a coherent view of the Tom’s picture.

Idea 1: God cannot Prevent Evil. Tom illustrates why God can’t, rather than won’t, prevent evil and demonstrates the advantages to understanding God as one not responsible for evil as opposed to being a co-conspirator with evil.

Idea 2: God does not cause our suffering for a higher purpose or reason; God suffers with us. God does not create our suffering and God wishes it had never occurred.

Idea 3: God is working to heal us. So what of divine intervention if God Can’t? Miracles are the result of the right conditions for healing and God is always working at even the smallest cellular level to heal us and the world, but God does not singlehandedly change our biology because God’s love is Uncontrolling. You need to read this chapter.

Idea 4: God squeezes good from bad. God does not cause bad things to happen in order to bring good things about, but God can squeeze some good out of a bad situation. Many stories illustrate this.

Idea 5: God needs our cooperation. If God were all powerful in physical ways, we human creatures would be afterthoughts, hamsters on a wheel simply living out a foreordained divine play. However, since God’s love is Uncontrolling, God needs us to use our bodies to help him work in the world. The apostle Paul famously says something similar when he calls the Church the “the body of Christ.” In other words, we matter.

Of course, this thesis requires some heavy theological/intellectual lifting. God Can’t is not a heavy academic piece. It is the culmination of 20 years of theoretical work that has now taken practical shape. God Can’t is written to be widely read and is practical in its approach to the problem of suffering and evil.  Therefore, Tom’s argument in this book will not please everyone because the theoretical space from which this argument is made is enclosed in the corpus of Tom’s work for the last 20 years.

From his earliest writings nearly 20 years ago, Tom has been working on the problem of evil because it too was the problem that for a short time turned him into an atheist. Thankfully, Tom continued in his theological journey and concluded that belief in God is more probable than not. This is how he describes it,

“I realized that if a loving God did not exist, I could not make sense of my deep intuitions about love. Without God as the ultimate love standard, I could not explain what love means and why I — or anyone else — ought to express it. These and related issues led me eventually to think it more plausible than not that God exists. But I did not and do not know this with certainty.” (198)

My first encounter with Tom’s work began in his essay “A Wesleyan Process Theodicy: Freedom, Embodiment, and The Almighty God” in the book he co-edited with Bryan Stone, Thy Name and Nature is Love: Wesleyan and Process Theologies in Dialogue. In this essay, we see early on that Tom was wrestling with the problem of suffering and evil, and beginning to re-conceptualize how God works in the world if one holds that a.) God is love and almighty yet b.) suffering and evil still occurs. This begs the questions: In what way is God Love and how is it expressed? How is God almighty if not in coercive power?

In that essay, Tom began to develop what has taken practical form in God Can’t but he had not quite come to his thesis of an uncontrolling love. At this point, he had set out the idea of essential free will theism in which creatures are essentially free (free in their essence) and God does not work in the world via coercive power, but via the bodies of others and through persuasion.

The academic theories behind these sentiments were the process theologies of David Ray Griffin and Charles Hartsthorne, the open theology of Clark Pinnock and the historical theology of John Wesley. Tom went on to express this same thesis in a book he edited for Nazarene Publishing House, Philosophy of Religion, in the essay “Divine Theodicy.” From here, the essays and books continued to take shape and be produced. Of key importance to his thesis in God Can’t is his more academic work, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific and Theological Engagement, in which he provides theoretical grounding for his larger thesis that God is a God of uncontrolling love, and therefore Can’t do some things. Of course, all of this work was brought together in his 2015 publication, The Uncontrolling Love of God. In addition, Tom has done exceptional work in the Wesleyan Theological Journal since the early 2000’s and his assorted essays here are must reads before one can engage his thesis in God Can’t with any modicum of credibility.

While there will be no shortage of critics looking to read the title of his recent release and discredit it for lack of theoretical justifications within its pages, they only do so as armchair theologians who have not engaged the entirety of Tom’s work. Their knee jerk attack will demonstrate their own amateur efforts.

Thus, what we have in God Can’t is not a knee jerk publication, a theological shock jock looking to be radical, but the practical import of years of theoretical work. Tom has produced here what all good academic work should eventually become: an honest attempt to make sense of the world around us and then offer that academic work to the every day person. Tom is not writing for the academic; he is writing, in his own words, for all of us:

“I wrote this book for victims of evil, survivors, and those who endure senseless suffering. I wrote it for the wounded and broken who have trouble believing in God, are confused, or have given up faith altogether. I’m writing to those who, like me, are damaged in body, mind, or soul.”

Upon release, this book deserves to be widely read, both for its clarity of presentation and for the ideas that could literally give someone back the God that bad theology has taken from them. It is a scary premise that maybe God Can’t, but it is also a premise, that if entertained seriously, may allow someone to believe in the God that never intended their suffering and has been weeping with them all along. I am certain there is no shortage of people who need to hear this goodnews.

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.