It’s no surprise that Thomas Jay Oord’s book, God Can’t (which I reviewed here) stirred up a huge response, and many questions.
He has now written a follow-up book where he addresses the major issues identified in a year’s correspondence, giving more detail on certain aspects of the ‘uncontrolling love’ view of God that he espouses. The book is:
God Can’t Q&A by Thomas Jay Oord (SacraSage, 2020)
Its eight chapters address one topic each, as follows:
1. If God can’t control, why pray?
2. If God is uncontrolling, how do we explain miracles?
3. What does an uncontrolling God do?
4. What does it mean to say that God loves everyone and everything?
5. How does Jesus fit in a theology of uncontrolling love?
6. If God created the universe, why can’t God stop evil?
7. What hope do we have if God’s love is uncontrolling?
8. Do you know God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly?
Good questions! And he answers them all in a frank and precise way, without dodging any of the issues. If you have read God Can’t—and/or his more academic work on the same subject, The Uncontrolling Love of God (reviewed here)—you will find this new Q&A volume really helpful. If you haven’t, you should read one of them first.
To whet your appetite, here is a selection of quotations from each of the above sections, with page numbers.
We don’t have to believe everything happens for a reason. (13)
God doesn’t punish. But there are natural negative consequences that come from sin and evil. (13)
Some theologians say God’s love and power are equal. But then they’ll claim God has the power not to love. Or they’ll say God could decide to stop loving someone. These claims reveal such theologians actually think God’s power of choice comes logically prior to love. By contrast, I think love comes logically before power. (16)
I suspect that if John Wesley were living today, he’d identify as open and relational. (19)
If God can’t control, why pray?
The Conventional view portrays God as having the ability to rescue singlehandedly but not always doing so unless we ask. It portrays God as metaphorically sitting back, arms folded, waiting for us to pray, or pray enough, before jumping in to help. (26)
From the uncontrolling love view, petitionary prayer affects God. (27)
An uncontrolling love view says petitionary prayer makes a difference without fully determining others. It says our prayers affect God without saying prayers make it possible for God to determine others fully. It says praying opens new possibilities God can use in the next moment, without saying those possibilities guarantee the rescuing, healing, or blessing we seek. Prayer can be a factor in the good that occurs, but it doesn’t guarantee it. (29)
All of life is petitionary prayer, in that sense, because everything we do influences God’s experience. I think about this when pondering the Apostle Paul’s recommendation to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17). (34)
Many worship songs stress sovereignty when speaking of God’s glory. “God is in control,” they proclaim. “God orchestrates every lightning strike and falling leaf.” Some songs ask God to “take my will” or say God’s ways are “irresistible.” Taken literally, many worship songs assume God is or could be controlling. I can’t worship a God who could singlehandedly control but chooses not to prevent evil. (39)
I’m motivated to pray when I believe God cannot control but lovingly influences all. (40)
If God is uncontrolling, how do we explain miracles?
Miracles are unusual and good events that involve God’s causal action in relation to creation. (45)
Miracles involve both God’s initiating action and creaturely responses or the conditions of creation being conducive. (48)
For God to interrupt the law-like regularities that result from divine love, God would have to deny God’s nature. And God can’t do that. (48)
I know of no passage that says miracles require God to control creatures or creation. No story or passage of Scripture explicitly says God singlehandedly brought about some miraculous result. (50)
If for theological reasons we can assume God was active but not always mentioned in biblical miracles, why can’t we for theological reasons assume creatures were active but not always mentioned in biblical miracles? Assuming God and creation always play roles in miracles resolves mysteries and offers a plausible framework for understanding God’s action in the world. (53)
The (wrong) idea that God chooses how much to influence triggers what I’ve called “The Problem of Selective Miracles.” This problem comes when thinking God controls others when doing miracles. But the idea also emerges if one thinks God voluntarily regulates how much to influence. (54)
What does an uncontrolling God do?
God always acts without controlling. (61)
As a spirit with being, God influences everyone and everything moment by moment. In this influencing, God calls, persuades, commands, or woos us to choose particular courses of action and ways of being. This is God’s causal action. (67)
God creates and sustains all things in relation with other causes and factors, so being a necessary cause in all things does not mean being the primary cause for all things. (69)
When we experience goodness, we should praise God for being its source. But we should also thank creatures who cooperated with God. When outcomes are evil, we can blame uncooperative creatures, random events, or the conditions of creation. God did not want this evil, and creatures and creation sometimes oppose God’s work for good. (72)
God is always present to all creation. So it makes no sense to say God “intervenes” from over there… I refrain from using “intervention” and “supernatural” because in my experience, these words confuse rather than clarify. (73)
I believe the universal Spirit acts at every level of existence, all the time. This action includes God’s causal effects, as God empowers, inspires, calls, and more. God is an efficient and final cause that provides formal causes. But because God always loves without controlling, God’s actions require positive responses for the results God wants to see. (77)
What does it mean to say God loves everyone and everything?
To love is to act intentionally, in relational response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. (82)
Some people think a loving person has only the well-being of others in mind. But this perspective of love doesn’t account for appropriate self-love… If we ought to love those whom God loves, we ought to love ourselves! (83)
After decades of studying Scripture, I’ve come to believe biblical passages that portray God as unloving are in error. It may seem bold to say this. But it seems the most honest. I don’t look at biblical passages that portray God as violent, cock my head, squint, and say, “God killing people must be loving from the divine perspective.” Instead, I say, “The biblical writers who think God kills people misunderstand God.” (85)
God by necessity loves, because God’s nature is love. You and I don’t have natures of love, so we must choose whether to love moment by moment. (86)
God loves rapists, for example, because God acts for their well-being. But God doesn’t like rape. God knows what’s good for the rapist involves him avoiding rape, and that’s obviously also good for the potential victim. (87)
We could say God is not free not to love. Because love comes first in God’s nature, God does not freely choose whether to love us. In this sense, divine love is not free. Divine love is free in another sense, however. God freely chooses how to love. (91)
We have little reason to trust a God for whom love comes second. (92)
Many believers have inconsistent views of God’s love and power. Incoherent theology is prevalent. (94)
When I think about a God worthy of my worship, I find more winsome the vision of a God who consistently loves but can’t control than a God who can control but loves inconsistently. (96)
How does Jesus fit in a theology of uncontrolling love?
After pointing to Jesus’ example of self-giving love, Paul tells his readers to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12b-13). He’s saying God empowers us — “works in” and “enables” us — to express love. But we have to respond, to “work out” our salvation. (102)
Many now think of Jesus’ kenosis as telling us something about who God is and how God acts… The life, teachings, and cross of Christ powerfully reveal God’s power as non-coercive love. (103)
I believe a perfectly good but voluntarily self-limited God — if this God existed — would become un-self-limited, in the name of love, to prevent preventable evil. Because genuine evils occur, I can’t believe God is voluntarily self-limited. I think God’s nature of love limits what God can do. And God necessarily expresses uncontrolling love for creation. (105)
The belief God can control creatures or creation leads to other problems too. For instance, one wonders why the Bible would have errors, contradictions, and ambiguity if God could control its writers to produce a perfect text. (107)
It’s hard to understand why a loving God would create through a long and painful evolutionary process if God has controlling power to snap existence into its present state and avoid all evolutionary evils. (107)
Some readers of the Bible notice that Jesus did not heal everyone who needed it. They offer “explanations” for this selective healing that blame the victims, appeal to a mysterious divine plan, call the illness God’s punishment, and more. Much more satisfying is the idea Jesus wanted to heal everyone but encountered actors, factors, forces, and agents that did not or could not cooperate. (111)
If God created the universe, why can’t God stop evil?
Should we consider a God who created a world and added features with great potential for calamity a good Creator? (119)
Believing God can create from absolutely nothing leads to a host of problems. Most people are unaware of those problems, so they don’t question creatio ex nihilo. (122)
If God once had the ability to create from absolutely nothing, God would essentially retain that ability. But a loving God with this ability would be morally culpable for failing to use it, at least periodically, to prevent genuine evil today. (123)
The Bible does not explicitly support creation from nothing. Writers speak of God creating out of something, that that “something” might be water, the deep, chaos, invisible things, and so on. (124)
God everlastingly loves creaturely others. “Love for creation” is necessary to what it means to be God. This means love is God’s motive for creating and God has always been creating. (127)
God’s creating had no beginning. There was never a time God started from nothing. Because God’s eternal nature is creative love, God has always been creating and loving creatures. (128)
The problem of evil cannot be solved if God created the universe singlehandedly or from absolutely nothing. For this reason (and eight others), I reject the view God ever creates from nothing. Instead, I believe God always creates in relation to creatures, creation, and creaturely forces. And God’s creating is always loving. (136)
What hope do we have if God’s love is uncontrolling?
If God can’t singlehandedly prevent evil, what hope do we have for love’s ultimate triumph? (137)
My relentless love view of the afterlife assumes God loves everyone and everything. It assumes God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. And it assumes God’s love never ends: God never stops loving us and all creation. I call this the logic of God’s uncontrolling love. The logic of uncontrolling love grounds our hope for the afterlife. (143)
Never-ending conscious torment has little or no biblical basis. The theory’s influence owes more to the medieval writer Dante than the Bible. (144)
Saying sin generates qualitatively negative experiences fits well with the broad biblical witness, contemporary health sciences, and our own experiences. (145)
Infinite punishment doesn’t fit the crime of finite sin. (145)
I don’t embrace the common universalism view… The God with the controlling power necessary to put everyone in Heaven someday should use controlling power to stop evil right now. (147)
I don’t like the annihilation view. It rightly says our actions have consequences. It rightly says God sends no one to never-ending torment in Hell. But it assumes God quits. God gives up on some people. God does not forgive all but actively or passively destroys some. It implies divine love has limits. (148)
When we do not cooperate with God, we suffer the natural negative consequences that come from failing to love. God doesn’t punish. But there are natural negative consequences — in this life and the next — from saying no to positive and healthy choices. Sin is its own punishment. (149)
I believe we should remain open to the possibility that afterlife bliss may occur near to or on earth, somewhere in our galaxy, or some other location. (150)
The relentless love view does not guarantee everyone will enjoy eternal bliss. But it provides the hope of universal salvation. (151)
It’s reasonable to think the God who never gives up and whose love is universal will eventually convince all. (152)
God calls and empowers all to respond in love in this life and the next. And divine love never gives up. (156)
Do you know God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly?
I find I share more in common with those who do not identify as Christian but love consistently than those who identify as Christian but don’t love consistently. (160)
Doubt is fundamental to the good life. Doubt is an aspect of belief. Christians are “believers” not “certainers,” to coin a word. I like what Phineas Bresee says on this: “Faith isn’t the absence of doubt; it’s choosing to act despite doubt.” (161)
Professional scholars and the average person on the street reach for the mystery card when argued into a corner. (163)
I don’t know with certainty the ideas of the uncontrolling love view are correct. I think it’s plausible the view is true, however. These ideas fit how I read the Bible, the best of my intellectual abilities, and the way the world seems to work. Given the widest array of information and experiences, it makes sense to say a loving God can’t prevent evil singlehandedly. (167)