Forums
Featuring guest Thomas Jay Oord

Thomas Jay Oord | Uncontrolling Love

Jim Stump and Thomas Jay Oord talk about the problem of evil.

Twitter
Facebook
LinkedIn
Print
46 Comments
brick wall with yellow ivy growing

Jim Stump and Thomas Jay Oord talk about the problem of evil.

Share  
Twitter
Facebook
LinkedIn
Print
46 Comments

Description

A podcast that shows the harmony between Christian faith and current scientific discoveries by sharing the stories of interesting people who have found a better way of understanding science and Christian faith.
  • Originally aired on December 03, 2020
  • With 
    Jim Stump

There is a dilemma that has plagued philosophers and theologians for centuries. It goes like this: how could it be true that God is all powerful and all loving, and yet there is still evil in the world? If God is powerful and loving, wouldn’t the evil be stopped? Thomas Jay Oord has written about one solution to this problem in his book God Can’t. While the title is surprising and might make some people nervous, his view may not be so shocking once you hear him explain some of the finer points. In doing so, this conversation intersects with science, miracles, and ultimately with God’s place in our world and our lives.

Additional Resources


Transcript

Oord:

There’s been a strong tradition in Christianity, that’s one to say God’s self sufficiency means that God has no needs whatsoever. I want to argue God has needs, but they’re the needs of love and love is inherently relational. That means God doesn’t do things solitarily. God invites, in fact, I think, needs creation’s cooperation.

Thomas J. Oord, Director of the doctoral program in Open and Relational Theology at Northwind Theological Seminary

Stump:

Welcome to Language of God. I’m Jim Stump.

In today’s episode I talk with Tom Oord. He and I have quite a bit in common. We both grew up in Wesleyan Holiness church denominations, and went on to serve at colleges in those denominations for a number of years…until they wouldn’t let us any more. In my case, it was my acceptance of the science of evolution that ran me afoul of some in the broader constituency and denominational officials; for Tom, science was part of the conflict too, but also his other views about God were deemed by some to be outside acceptable bounds for his community.

Those are difficult situations, and Tom and I talk about it a bit. But most of our conversation is about one of his ideas that sounds pretty shocking on the face of it: his answer to why there is evil in the world and yet God doesn’t seem to do anything about it is because God can’t do anything about it. God Can’t is the name of his book on this subject, and this makes a lot of people nervous. Now, I think you’ll hear that when he has the chance to unpack and explain what he means, it is not quite as shocking, and his views are actually consistent with many things we believe about God and the world. But of course not everyone will be persuaded by his view. I push Tom at several points, and he pushes me back on others.

I really hope, though, that you’ll hear Tom’s gentle spirit, and his embodiment of the love of God. He is motivated not by causing controversy, but by helping people come to terms with tragedy, and encouraging all of us to join with God’s loving purposes for the world, to be God’s hands and feet. 

I’m very pleased to have gotten to know Tom over the years. Let’s get to our conversation.

Interview Part One

Stump:  

Well, it’s very good to talk to you, Tom. Thanks for coming on the show.

Oord:

It’s really good to be chatting with you.

Stump:  

So all of us have some ideas about God, making us theologians to some extent, but you’re a professional theologian. How did that happen exactly? Can you walk us through the stages of development? Or when do you first remember thinking, “when I grow up I want to be a theologian.”

Oord:

Yeah, I don’t think I had that in mind when I was really young, although I’ve always been interested in the questions of God, the questions, you know, the big questions of life. So in some ways, it’s not a surprise I am who I am and where I’m at. But for me, I think, you know, I remember going to college and hearing people give testimonies about their calling and it always seemed to be some dramatic experience in which they either heard a voice or had some deep intuition that God wanted them to do X, Y, or Z. And for me, it was more of a matching my interest, my skills, and what seems to be the needs of the world. So I felt like I had interest in the big questions and theology. I wanted to help people. And other people seemed to be helped by some of the things I had to say. And so it was kind of more… I like to think of my calling as really just trying to pursue the most plausible course of action from my life. 

Stump:  

What can you tell us about the religious community or environment that you grew up in?

Oord:

My father was a part of the Christian Reformed tradition. He was Dutch Reformed.

Stump:

The double O’s in your name, give that away, right? 

Oord:

Yes, it does. [laughs] My mother grew up in the Pentecostal Holiness tradition. And they met in Yakima, Washington, they moved to a little town in Eastern Washington called Othello. And they chose to go to a church of the Nazarene which is also in the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. 

Stump:  

Did you have kind of normal religious experiences and in that kind of tradition, in the kind of evangelical tradition, growing up, youth group and all that sort of thing?

Oord:  

I suppose. So, you know, my father was, he was a very warm hearted kind of guy. He thought carefully. He taught me TULIP as a young boy, which is a Calvinist view of five kind of summary views. But in our house, piety was rewarded and expected. You know, we prayed, we sang lots of songs, we were at church all the time. My parents were on the church board for at least 40 years. So our church was kind of one of those pillar families in the community and church life was very important to us.

Stump:  

And because this is a BioLogos podcast, let me also ask you about science. What science do you have in your background or how has it influenced your theology and outlook on life?

Oord:  

Initially, science, at least in a kind of more formal sense, didn’t play that big of a role. You know, I took science classes and did well in them. You know, we talked some about the evolution question when I was a kid. But I never felt pressured to be a young earth creationist, although I had plenty of friends who were. Science didn’t play that big of a role until I got to college and took more science and then eventually, I came to really invest myself in reading the sciences and trying to be sort of up to speed on the big issues because of my discussions and exploration of theology. It was kind of wanting to have a comprehensive view of reality and thinking, I can’t really do that if I ignore the sciences.

Stump:  

So in that regard, I think that’s where I first came to know you a little bit, some of your reflections on the sciences. And you and I both belong to this fraternity, I guess, of Christian academics who have had to leave the colleges where they have worked and even thrived, because a few people thought they were threats to that community. I know firsthand that these issues become complex when there are, say, denominational officials, and even donors who have some influence over these kinds of situations. And it’s not my intent here to dig into the details of your situation. But I wonder if you might say something more generally about this phenomenon of Christian communities and the lines that are drawn for inclusion and exclusion in them? What do you think’s the motivation for these kinds of situations that you and I have both gone through?

Oord:

I think most people have positive motives, even if what they say and do ends up hurting people like me, hurting, in my case, the academics. I think people want to have some kind of secure way of thinking, some kind of safety, believing that certain ideas, you know, are the best ideas, maybe even, we can know them with certainty. And when someone like me comes along and offers a different way of thinking, even if that way of thinking is actually older than the way they think, just having a difference feels threatening to many people. And in my case, I not only believe that God creates through an evolutionary process—and that was some of the pushback my university received from those who didn’t like that I believe that—I also am an open theist, which is the idea that God experiences time and faces an open future. And probably worse than those two, I was very public and well known for those ideas. I think a lot of people in my tradition can believe the things I believe, but as long as they don’t get known for that belief, they’re kept, you know, they’re not messed with very much. But I made a decision that I was going to be very public about it, because I knew that many people had been helped by these other ways of thinking, and I wanted to help people.

Stump:

So where do you see yourself now in relationship to organized Christianity? Is there a label you use to classify yourself on this landscape of Christianity?

Oord:

Yeah, I mean, my start with sort of the general claims, I believe in God, I’m a follower of Jesus Christ, I’m a Christian. And then I get more specific. I’m most attracted to a Wesleyan theological way of looking at things. I’m an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene and I attend…

Stump:

You still are?

Oord: 

I still am, yep. In fact, I’m even Associate Pastor at the church I go to here in town. That’s a new thing in my life here, last few months. So yeah, I’m very much still a part of the tradition that I grew up in, still, you know, I think of myself as an Orthodox Christian, realizing that there are other Christians who think differently about me on some things. But I see myself in the center of things.

Stump:

How about your view of Scripture? How would you describe that?

Oord:

Yeah, I think probably the best way to describe it is to talk a little bit about my journey. I came through an educational process in which I began as a fundamentalist, who had an inerrancy view of things, thought the Bible was inerrant in all things about which it speaks. And found out that that’s not the view of my denomination. So I was more fundamentalist than my denomination was. And eventually came to believe that the Bible could still be my primary resource for things related to God and the way I live my life, but it didn’t have to tell me the inerrant truth about all matters. And if I came across apparent inconsistencies in Scripture, I didn’t have to just throw the whole book out, as if it had one error it didn’t mean anything. Instead, I can see those inconsistencies and still find really important truths, salvific truths, we would say, in my tradition, in the Bible.

Stump:

So you spoke pretty openly at the end of the book, we’re discussing today about how hard the situation was of having to leave your college and continues to be, I’m sure, on you and your family. And in fact, I think this is one of the evidences of pain and tragedy, even evil, in our world that your book here addresses. So let’s turn to that now if we could. So the title of the book God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse and other Evils. So before diving into some of the detail, let me see if I can frame this, see if you agree with this framing of your project. So there’s a claim that’s often used to lay out the options and the problem of evil that goes something like this: an all powerful and all loving God would prevent all evil. And then given that there is evil in the world, you basically have two options then right? You can deny that there’s an all powerful and all loving God or you have to deny this premise all together and come up with some plausible reasons why an all powerful and all loving God could prevent evil but doesn’t. And it seems to me a lot of the work on theodicy has focused on that latter option of trying to figure out why God might allow evil in certain circumstances. But you don’t like that view, and instead have argued that there is no all powerful and all loving God. And it’s not the all loving part that gives you a concern, right? But rather, you argue that an all loving God could not in fact, also be all powerful, at least in the way all powerful has typically been understood. So instead, you say there is evil, even though there is an all loving God, because God does not have the power to stop the evil. God can’t stop the evil that exists, at least single handedly. Is that a fair summary of your view?

Oord:

I like it. I think it is fair. I think, probably where we dig into the nuance might be around what we mean by God’s power, being all powerful.

Stump:

Right. So this sounds pretty shocking on the surface, right? God can’t. So unpack that “can’t” there a bit for us. What do you mean by God can’t as it relates to what God has the power to do and what God doesn’t have the power to do?

Oord:

Yeah. Well, it surprises a lot of people who maybe don’t have a background in theology and philosophy, that the majority of Christian theologians in history have also said God can’t do some things. Almost every Christian theologian has said something like, “God can’t do which is that which is logically impossible.” And many have said, “God can’t do what is mathematically impossible.” The only exception I can think of is actually Rene Descartes and he’s not usually put in the Christian theologian camp, even though…

Stump:

So is something like God can’t make square circles?

Oord:

Right. Or God can’t make a rock so big that even God can’t lift it. Or God can’t make married bachelor’s. The mathematical part would be something like God can’t make 2 + 2 = 387. Things like that. That’s very, very widely accepted, at least in the academy, among Christian scholars. Then there’s a second interesting question and issue, and actually debate, within Christian history that very few people know about, even scholars, and that’s a debate between what is oftentimes called the essentialist and the voluntarist.

Stump:

Ok, so what do you mean by that?

Oord:

Yeah, the real… essentialists want to talk about how God’s essence comes before God’s will or God’s choice. Whereas the voluntarist wants to say God’s choice comes before God’s essence. Now this ‘comes before’ means logically. And so it kind of comes down to this issue. Are there things that God can’t do, because to do them, God wouldn’t be God? The voluntarist, if they’re really consistent, they want to say God can do just about anything, including stop existing, which is a weird thing to think about. But most of them don’t go that far. They’re more commonly going to make a claim like this, “oh, God could choose to stop loving us, because the will comes first.” Whereas the essentialists are going to say, “no, no, there’s some characteristics about God, God’s nature, that make it the case that God can’t choose to do things, because to do them, God just simply wouldn’t be God.” So God can’t stop existing. God must exist. God must love, because it’s God’s nature. And things like that. And there’s disagreements on the details.

Stump:

So scripture seems to testify to some of these right? God can’t lie.

Oord:

Right. It’s actually kind of surprising how many biblical passages that do talk about things God can’t do, not God chooses not to, but God can’t. God can’t grow tired. God can’t be tempted. God—my favorite passage is one in which the Apostle Paul is writing to Timothy and he says, “when we are faithless, God remains faithful, because God cannot deny Himself.” And so it’s this idea that even God can’t go against who God is, God’s own nature.

Stump:

And there’s another aspect of that I think that comes into this problem of evil sometimes when it’s claimed that God can’t make free people who are unable to sin. Is that the same idea?

Oord:

That would fit in there. And actually, in the questions of evil, there’s a quite a tradition who have kind of built on what philosophers called the free will defense. And it kind of takes the shape—well, there’s many forms, but most of them take the shape of what you’ve just expressed. And that is, if God is really going to create us and give us free will, then God can’t take away that free will, otherwise it’s not really a gift. I not only affirm that, I think we ought to extend that to all creation. Not that all creatures are free. I’m not saying frogs are free, or cells are free, but that God gives agency, self-determination, self organization, their very existence to other creatures. And because God’s love is the motivator for these kinds of gifts, and God can’t deny God’s own self—God can’t not love—God must give freedom, agency, self-organization, you know, depending on the complexity of the creature, and therefore God can’t control them.

Stump:

That controlling is an important part of this, right? So God’s nature is love, and then connect that a little bit more to the control or the coercing that cannot flow from that.

Oord:

Yeah. So the word control here, I mean in a very specific way. Philosophers use the phrase “sufficient cause,” but the phrase I prefer is ‘God can’t single handedly determine outcomes.’ That’s what I mean by control. And then the idea that God’s love is uncontrolling is the idea that God acts, and in that action, self gives and other empowers giving to creation, whatever level of complexity. And because this love comes first in God, God must do that, and God’s love is self giving, and other empowering, God simply can’t single handedly bring about outcomes. God can’t control creatures to bring about outcomes.

Stump:

And for you, this applies not just to creatures like us, but even to things like tornadoes or purely naturally occurring things that God doesn’t control. Is that right?

Oord:

Yeah, that’s right. And that’s probably one of the most surprising things about my proposal, because so a lot of people, you know, they’ll get on board with not controlling humans. Maybe they’ll get on board with not controlling chimps and dogs and giraffes and dolphins, though that might be a little harder for them. But when it comes down to worms, mosquitoes, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, they want to have a God who can control at that level. Of course, the problem is, some of the greatest tragedies and evils that we face are not caused by free will creatures. We’re in the midst of a pandemic right now. And yet, it seems like this is a genuine evil, there’s unnecessary suffering and pointless pain. If God has the kind of power to control viruses, you’d think a loving God would do a lot better job than what seems to be the case right now.

Stump:

Yeah. So I wonder if you can speak a little more toward that, because it seems to me that in some ways, we might read you as being driven to this position that you are because the alternative seems so awful, in some sense, right? That God could do something but just decides not to? But aren’t there more, maybe more sophisticated ways of stating that claim that might not sound quite so awful? Or talk a little bit more about that God allowing— So in your book, you speak out fairly strongly against the claim that God just simply allows evil. What does that say about God?

Oord:

Yeah, the word ‘allow’ or some people use the word ‘permit’, gives me the impression, and I think most people the impression, that God has the power essentially to not allow, to not permit, but has voluntarily, of God’s own free choice, decided to let creation run its course or people use their free will or whatever. God is allowing these things to happen, even if they look really evil from our perspective, either because there’s some greater good that’s going to come out of it or God’s teaching us the lesson or maybe even God is punishing. Maybe God’s allowing these things because God sets things up at the beginning, however long ago you think this is, and it’s just kind of part of the package. It’s kind of the processes of existence that you have to have a God who allows horrible things even though that God could step in. This is problematic in my mind, and in the mind of most people who suffer great evils. At least that’s what I find in the letters that I get from readers of the book, God Can’t. Because what it says to them if they’re told, “well, you know, I’m sorry, you were raped, but God allowed that,” it sounds like God could have stopped it, but for some mysterious reason didn’t. And I think that a perfectly loving being, who can prevent evil, but allows, it isn’t actually perfectly loving.

Stump:

So what do you do then, with people who claim to have been the beneficiary of times when God has intervened miraculously, to stop such things? Does this create a problem for God performing miracles in that sense?

Oord:

I don’t think so. At least, the way I think a good way to think about miracles, I think of your question as having two parts. One is, is it the case that sometimes bad things happen but good comes from it? And the second question is, what about miracles? Does my view dismiss miracles?

Stump:

We’ll get to the first one a little later, about good coming from it. So speak to that second one here.

Oord:

I believe in miracles. This might sound strange after I’ve just said God can’t control others. But I do believe in miracles. I believe in the miracles of Scripture and of today. But I think in the history of theology and philosophy, we’ve not been very careful in how we think about what a miracle is. There’s not many philosophers and theologians who’ve offered a clear definition of a miracle. And I’ve decided that the way to go about making headway is to define, by terms, as best as I can, and then try to see how they match what we find in the Bible, in our everyday life. 

So I think a miracle is something that’s unusual, something that’s good., and something that involves God’s action in relation to creation. So good, unusual and God’s action in relation to creation. So when I look at the miracles of Scripture, most of them have to do with healing or overcoming oppressive forces. I can easily imagine that there’s some kind of cooperative agents or factors or actors in the world that God works with to bring about a surprising good result. It’s not that God had to single handedly control all these factors to bring about the good, but instead, there’s some kind of cooperation. And in fact, when Jesus does miracles, he often talks about the cooperative faith of those who are healed or have something miraculous happen.

Stump:

I’m just trying to think of that cooperative faith and perhaps I’m thinking too mechanistically here somehow that their having faith is doing something in the natural order with—if it’s somebody that’s being healed, say, that God is acting—I mean can you unpack that any further? How is God acting such that, you know, the sick person is cured from their disease? What are the cooperating factors there?

Oord:

Yeah. This requires us to introduce another really important set of ideas that I think a lot of Christians actually believe, but they don’t have the, I’ll say a metaphysical framework to put them in. And that is that our conscious minds aren’t the only actors in our bodies. That sometimes we’ll talk about, you know, how my leg goes numb, we say it’s fallen asleep, and we can’t control it. We’ve got other things going on in our members, the cells, the organs, the muscles, and while we definitely influence them, we’ve got lots of illustrations of us not being able to control them entirely. So when I talk about cooperation, I’m not just talking about people consciously saying yes to God, although I think that can be important and play an important role. I’m also talking about the possibility of cooperation amongst cells and organs and muscles. And sometimes our cells and organs—well I’ll just talk about cells here for a moment—our cells either don’t cooperate, or the conditions for their cooperation aren’t conducive for miracles, even though we’re consciously saying yes to God. So I’m not blaming victims of let’s say, cancer for not having enough faith because they weren’t healed, because it very well could be that the cells either don’t have the kind of opportunities for cooperation or are not cooperating in some way.

Stump:

What would it look like for them to have that opportunity? I mean, again, I’m probably thinking of them and in relationship to these conscious agents of some sort. But that’s not what you mean. So I’m trying to figure out what you do mean for a cell to either cooperate or not cooperate with God?

Oord:

Yeah, I think about the way physicians talk about how vaccines can be effective for a while, but then the viruses somehow react to them in ways to make that vaccine not effective anymore. When you start talking to physicians, they use lots and lots of language of agency and factors and actors at smaller levels, things that we don’t think are conscious, and I don’t think they’re conscious either, but have some kind of responsive ability or capability to their environment, whether it’s the environment includes other cells, you know, if we introduce other kinds of agents like drugs, or medicines, or if there’s some kind of—I’ve already mentioned viruses, but microbes of various kinds. So this way of speaking about agency at other levels in our body is already kind of part of our lexicon, even though a lot of us haven’t thought carefully in terms of the philosophy of it.

Stump:

Okay. Maybe say another word then too—in the book you give another example for why God may be limited in certain respects is that God doesn’t have a body. How does this limit the kinds of things that God can do?

Oord:

Yeah, I was presenting some of these ideas about 10 years ago, at a society that you and I have membership in together, even though I don’t think you were in the room that day. And our mutual friend, a guy named Brent Montgomery, raised his hand. He said something like this, he said, “so you’re telling me that it’s not loving for God to control others, but what if my three year old son is walking toward the an open oven door and is about ready to put his hand inside and burn it, and I could grab his hand and keep him from burning it? Wouldn’t that be a loving thing to do?” And of course, I do think it’s a loving thing to do. And I realized I needed to think a little more carefully about the proposals I had. And it dawned on me that I actually have a very orthodox, or at least common view in Christian history to support my view. And that is the idea that God is essentially without a localized body. God is incorporeal, to use the classic language. Most Christian theologians have thought that God is an omnipresent spirit, not a localized physical individual. Now, there’s questions about Jesus, and we can get into that if we want. But that helps me then make sense of why an omnipresent spirit doesn’t actually have a hand to reach out and grab a three year old before that three year old puts his hand in the oven. Whereas some of us can have bodies and we can feel called by God in the moment whether we’re conscious of it or not, to use our bodies and to be God’s metaphorical hands and feet in that kind of way.

Stump:

I was going to use the example of when my kids were little, and forcing them, coercing them say, to get into their car seat, because I love them. Right?

Oord:

Yeah.

Stump:

Does that even raise the possibility though, that coercion at some level is not incompatible with love?

Oord:

It all depends on how we define coercion, doesn’t it? I mean, it has so many definitions. Some people use the word coercion only in a psychological sense. It’s kind of like a threat. You know, if you don’t do what I do, then you know, with kids, you’re going to discipline them some way. Other people use coercion in a kind of, I’ll call it, bodily impact sense. And that’s what you’re using here with putting your kids in the car seat. But coercion in a metaphysical sense means being a sufficient cause or single handedly bringing about events. I don’t think we can single handedly bring about events. I don’t think God can do that. But we are different from God in that we do have localized bodies, and we sometimes can use those bodies to exert bodily influence on other bodies.

Stump:

So we can do things that God can’t do.

Oord:

That’s right. Yep.

[musical interlude]

BioLogos:

Hi Language of God listeners. We wanted to take a quick break from the episode to tell you about the BioLogos resource centers found at our website, biologos.org. You’ll find articles, videos, and other resources curated for pastors, educators, youth ministry, campus ministry and small groups. Help bring the science and faith conversation to the places that are important to you. Just click the resources tab at the top of the page. Now back to the conversation.

Interview Part Two

Stump:

Well, these are starting to tease some of the other ideas that you bring out in the book here that I’d like us to get to, because I fear that too many people’s ideas about your book or reaction to the book might be just dominated by the title saying God can’t, and think that if this is the solution for evil, then the cure might be worse than the disease, right? But you argue, in fact, that the claim “God can’t” must be heard alongside several of these other ideas that you’ve been starting to tease here. So let’s walk through them too. So the first one of those you give is that God feels our pain. How does this help in understanding that God can’t stop these evils?

Oord:

The third year I was married to my wife—we’ve been married now 33 years—she came home after a day of student teaching in a local school, I think it was third graders. She walked in the back door. She talked about how she’d had a rotten day. The kids were acting up. The teacher who was supposed to be acting as her mentor was not helping. The principal had walked in in the middle of the chaos. And she was just, you know, crying. I remember sitting on our little rental apartment floor and I was listening to this. And I began to think about what she ought to do the next day, I began to strategize on how she was going to fix the problem. And I began to give her advice.

Stump:

I’m guessing where this is going. Not entirely helpful.

Oord:

No, it was not. And at one point, she said something to the effect of, I don’t want solutions, I just want to process what I’m feeling right now. And I realized that one of the greatest gifts of love I could give, as a husband, is to empathize with my wife. And it’s not just husband and wife. One of the greatest gifts we can give one another in our world is to empathize with those who are in pain, to not only rejoice with those who rejoice, but mourn with those who mourn. I also think God can do that. And this sounds really obvious to lots of people. I know. Lots of people think, well, of course, God is affected by what’s going on. I mean, God sometimes is angry when we sin, but God also comforts us, God’s a God of all consolation, to use the biblical language. But you and I know as Christian theologians, that there are a number of theologians today and in history, who have rejected the idea that God is sympathetic, empathetic, that God has any kind of emotions. And I think it’s important to affirm an emotional God. Not a emotional God who flies off the handle or lets emotions get the best of God, but a God who really suffers with us when we suffer.

Stump:

So, one of my favorite science fiction books is The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell that touches on these problems of evil as well. The title, The Sparrow, comes from Jesus, his line, “not a sparrow can fall to the ground without God knowing it.” But the story itself suggests that that’s a little comfort to the sparrow. It still fell. Is that empathy? Is empathy enough in this sense, to say, yes, you’re going through these hard times, these tragedies, God feels that too. But you’re still going through them.

Oord:

No, it’s not enough. And actually, you know, there are a number of Christian theologians today, who, when they are presented with the problem of evil, will say that God is suffering with us. And that gives a partial amount of help. But they retain the idea that God could have just stopped that suffering in the first place, because God has that kind of power. And so empathy is important, but we have to couple that with the idea that God couldn’t have single handedly prevented the suffering in the first place.

Stump:

Good. Well, let’s keep moving through the ideas of the book here. The next one then is God works to heal. So God can’t just single handedly stop the tragedies and the evil, but yet God works to heal things. What do you mean there?

Oord:

I used to be a faith healer kind of guy. I used to pray with people, anoint them with oil, make all kinds of stark claims about how God can heal anybody at any time. But I’m also kind of an empiricist at heart. I also kind of kept track of how people actually responded.

Stump:

What was your track record?

Oord:

Pretty low. I don’t think it just has to do with me. I think the track record of most people is pretty low.  So I went from, in my early 20s, being a faith healer kind of guy to being a real skeptic of any kind of healing. I was really a functional deist for a while. I believed in God but thought God had a hands off policy in the world. But I couldn’t deny that sometimes people get better. And it’s not always through traditional medical means, as important as those are sometimes, unexpected good things happen in the world. And perhaps it’s because God is working in relation to them. And so I eventually worked myself to the position I outline in this chapter, which says that God is always working at all levels of complexity and all places of existence, to heal to the greatest extent possible. But God can’t do it single handedly, which means that either there has to be some kind of creaturely cooperation, or in the case of inanimate objects, the conditions of creation have to be conducive for the healing God wants. And so I do believe in healing God. It may be the case that, you know, some healing has to wait until the afterlife, but I can account for the genuine healings that occur in this life as well.

Stump:

Okay, and the next one, God squeezes good out of bad. I like that way of saying it. And this is different than saying that God intended this bad thing so that this good might come from it, right?

Oord:

Yes, that’s really important. And that’s the big difference between what we sometimes call a greater good theodicy, which is that God allows or causes bad things because God knows there’s some better thing going to come from it, versus my view, which says that God didn’t cause it or even allow it. But God works with it to bring some kind of good, squeeze whatever good God can squeeze from the bad God didn’t want in the first place. In the church I grew up in, Sunday nights were often testimony nights. And someone, I mean, people would stand up and a very common testimony would be something like this. It’s, you know, “last year I lost my job and our family’s gone through really tough times and, you know, we’ve gone through stress, there’s been pain and agony and suffering, but I got a job last month and it’s a better job than I had in the first place. I’m making more money. This was all God’s will.” And I remember sitting in the pews thinking, okay, so God caused you, or at least allowed you, to lose a job then sent you through all this suffering and then you had something good. How do I make sense of this? Because if in fact, God is the source of all that’s good, then I want to affirm that. But if I have to think that God’s also the source of bad, evil, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. And I finally came to think that if we just say God is working with the circumstances, good or bad, and God works to squeeze good from them, then we can make sense of these testimonies in which things really might have gotten better, without blaming God for the bad that happened previously.

Stump:

And in the vein of testimonies, you note too, that it’s better to say to be thankful in all circumstances, not necessarily thankful for all circumstances. Is that the same distinction?

Oord:

Yeah, yeah, that’s—  Thank you. I’m glad you pointed that out. Yeah. being thankful in the midst of things doesn’t mean we have to think God caused those things.

Stump:

Okay, so let me push a little further on this one with regard to natural history, right? Because aren’t there some of these natural evils, famines, fires, extinctions, suffering that goes along with all of these, that we have to say, in some sense, God intended merely by creating the world. Where did these natural evils come from in the first place? They can’t really be blamed on human sin. So don’t these trace back to God in some sense?

Oord:

Yeah, natural evils are tougher, aren’t they? I mean, I think we just need to begin by admitting that. Because even if we think some evils are caused by animals or smaller agents with some kind of responsiveness or freewill or something like that, then it’s, you know, we can put the blame on them. But I don’t want to blame water for evils. You know, if there’s a flood, I don’t want to say, well, that nasty hurricane, it’s generally evil, it’s sinned or something like that. I’m not advocating that kind of a position. So we also know, as you pointed out that some good comes from evil. And here in the northwest, we have periodic forest fires, and without them, our forest would be even worse off than they are. And so we say, in fact, we sometimes even start fires in order to make the forest more healthy. But when I’m out hiking, a burned area in the forest does not look beautiful. So what do we do with all of that? Well, some people just say those things are evils. After all, natural evil is not really genuine evil is just natural pain. And it’s not easy for us to make a, you know, a judgement on these matters. I want to say that a better course of action is to ask this question, did God have the ability to stop the things the natural evils we think made the world worse than it might have been? Now, it may be the case that we can never know for sure what makes the world better or worse, because we’re not omniscient. But we all have to make judgments about these things in our everyday lives. We all do that. And if we come across some, you know, natural disaster, take the current pandemic as a good example, and we think that God ha has the kind of power to stop it, but chooses not to, then we’re going to question God’s perfect love. If, however, we think it’s part of God’s very nature to be creative, God’s very nature to be giving existence, agency, life, and therefore God can’t prevent pandemics, then I think we have a way to save God’s perfect love in the face of what seemed to us to be genuine evils.

Stump:

Also, in this section, you discuss the Hebrews 12 passage about God disciplining those God loves. Does this play into this at all? Do we see some of these circumstances that are difficult and trying, can we see these as God’s discipline, which is not punishment? I mean, you make this point, it’s not punishment that’s imposed but…

Oord:

That’s the key issue, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t know about you, but most of the time, people use the word discipline, and they mean something like punishment. In the book, I talk about discipline as more like a coach or a tutor, or a trainer at the gym, someone who’s pointing you toward ways of being and acting in the world. And then you have to freely choose whether or not you’re going to follow their direction. But a lot of times, people have looked at, let’s say a tsunami or hurricane. And they’ve said, well, God sent that in as a punishment for whatever evil they want to pick out that they think is wrong in the world. I’m against that kind of thing. But I do think that God can work in the midst of those things to teach us lessons. So if discipline means that God is working with us, in light of what has happened to us, or in light of what we might self sacrificially choose for ourselves, then I’m in favor of God’s discipline.

Stump:

Okay, we have one more point here. And this is the one that I think is super, super important. And in bringing a lot of these ideas together. And that is that God needs our cooperation. And another passage of scripture here in Romans eight, the verse about all things working together for good. And there are some translation issues with the Greek there, too, that lead into your final point, God needs our cooperation. Can you explain that one to us?

Oord:

Yeah, the final clause in Romans 8:28, has often been translated, God works things for the good of those who love Him, which sounds an awful lot like God just has the good of people who love God in mind and sort of plays favorites. Another way to translate that particular verse, and the Revised Standard Version does this, among others, is that God works with those who love Him according to the purposes, etc, etc. And I use that and other aspects of Scripture to talk about an essential role that we and others in creation play in God’s ongoing work. I mean, I think that it’s really helpful for a number of reasons. One, it means that our lives have real significance and what we do matters, but it also helps us, I think, make sense of the kind of issues that BioLogos cares about, and that is the evolutionary kinds of issues. Because if you think that God works with creation for purposes, then you can talk about some real role not only by humans, but other factors, actors, forces and agents in an evolutionary process. So my particular version of this is maybe more radical than some people want to say. I want to say God can’t get the kind of results God wants without our cooperation. Other people just simply say God invites us and may get the impression God could do it single handedly if God wanted to. But I think it makes more sense to make the bolder claim that God really needs our creative activity in response to God’s action in the world.

Stump:

And this seems to fit with our calling as image bearers then to right? We’re given a purpose of vocation, not just because God thought it might be cute. God needs this. God needs us? Is that what’s so troubling to some people to think that God has a need, in that sense?

Oord:

That’s precisely what trouble some people. I think there’s good reasons biblically to affirm it. But there’s been a strong tradition in Christianity, that’s one to say God’s self sufficiency means that God has no needs whatsoever. I want to argue God has needs, but they’re the needs of love. And love is inherently relational. That means God doesn’t do things solitarily. God invites, in fact, I think, needs creation’s cooperation.

Stump:

So there are some real practical, I think, applications of this, of God needing our cooperation. We’ve been talking about the pandemic several times when we pray for God to, you know, take care of us, for God to heal the world from all of this, maybe there’s a role we have to play in answering that prayer, right?

Oord:

Definitely. I live in Idaho. I think the recent statistics say we have the most rapid increase of cases in the country as we record this particular video. Does God want Idahoans or anybody to get sick and die because of this virus? I don’t think so. So what’s God going to do about it? Well, God, some people think God might be you know, off on Mars, watching what’s going on, eating popcorn, twiddling his thumbs, saying, you know, good luck, guys. I think God is active and present right now, not only in Idaho, but in all creation, working to combat this virus. And God requires our cooperation. So wearing masks, social distancing, all the kinds of things that you and I, as individuals can do, is actually empowered and called by God for us to do. We have a role to play. God also, I think, is working with our very best scientific minds to find vaccines and things to prevent the spread of this virus. So God works at all kinds of levels, places, factors, actors. But God requires cooperation, various kinds of ways from various kinds of people.

Stump:

Good. Well, let me end with another practical note and application of this because I think a lot of times in talking about the problem of evil, philosophers and theologians tend to separate out, say, the logical problem of evil from the practical problem, thinking that people who are actually going through tragedy don’t really need philosophy and theology right then but counseling. I’ve wondered though, in reading through your book that your view seems to blur this distinction a little bit. Your book is filled with accounts of interactions that you’ve had with people going through tough times and evil circumstances. And more than once in the book, you say something to the effect of, if we want to make sense of God’s relation to abuse and tragedy and evil, we have to be transformed. And for that, our beliefs must be reformed. So understanding these ideas seem to play a real important practical role in the lives of these people. And I wonder if you can give an objective assessment of how this approach works for people in practice. Better than your faith healing? Is the track record better?

Oord:

Much, much better. I get letters every week. I have 50 times more stories than what are in this book, from people who’ve read God Can’t who see how it applies to their own struggles, to death, to disease, to abuse, to trauma, and they’ve thought to themselves, prior to reading the book that God must have been, you know, punishing them or had abandoned them or something. And now here is a view of God in which God truly loves. But it’s not a God who loves, who you know, watches us from a distance, but God who is really invested in working in our lives. And so, you know, I’ve written and edited more than 20 books. This book, or this set of books related to these ideas are far and away the most fulfilling for me as people talk about how much it’s helped them. In fact, I get letters from pastors. I got a letter from a pastor recently, who said, “prior to reading your book, I’d really actually stopped praying. But now I pray, because I think that my actions make a difference. And I now don’t blame God for failing to stop the bad things that I’ve seen in my life.” That’s a really satisfying kind of letter to get.

Stump:

So it’s some sense comforting to people to know that bad things happen because God couldn’t do anything about it.

Oord:

Yes, it is. Yep. Especially those who are survivors.

Stump:

Is part of the hurdle of this, though, don’t we have some desire, don’t we want to feel like God is in control?

Oord:

Yeah, we do. And I understand that, you know, we would like to think that everything is going to work out, okay. And it’s guaranteed. I mean, I actually think there is hope for things to work out, okay. But it’s not the kind of guarantee that can only come if God is a controlling God. And I find more comfort in believing that God’s love is relentless, but uncontrolling, then thinking God could control but just chooses not to stop it. In fact, maybe I’ll say it like this. A few years ago, I was with one of my theology colleagues, and we were talking about the problem of evil. And we were—he has a different view than I do. And we were kind of, you know, jostling a bit and good naturedly critiquing each other. And I was telling, you know, he knew my view that God can’t single handedly prevent evil, but God requires cooperation, that sort of thing. And he thinks God could. At one point, he says, “you know, Tom, your God is just doing the best he can.” And I said, “you know, your God could be doing a whole lot better, but chooses not to.” Fundamentally, that’s the differing intuitions. My intuition is that it’s better to have a God who’s perfectly loving but can’t control than a God who could control but apparently doesn’t love consistently.

Stump:

Well, I’m going to exercise some control here and bring this conversation to a close. I’m not coercing you, I guess, to stop talking. But I invite you to join with me and giving our audience the opportunity to stop listening, to do something else. And I pray that God might squeeze some good out of our conversation no matter how far it went awry. But seriously, Tom, thank you for your work on this, for the consistent example of uncontrollable love that you have been. And thank you for talking to me about it here today.

Oord:

I really enjoyed the conversation, Jim.

Credits

BioLogos:

Language of God is produced by BioLogos. It has been funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation and more than 300 individuals who donated to our crowdfunding campaign. Language of God is produced and mixed by Colin Hoogerwerf. That’s me. Our theme song is by Breakmaster Cylinder. We are produced out of the remote workspaces and homes of BioLogos staff in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

If you have questions or want to join in a conversation about this episode find a link in the show notes for the BioLogos forum. Find more episodes of Language of God on your favorite podcast app or at our website, biologos.org, where you will also find tons of great articles and resources on faith and science. Thanks for listening. 


Featured guest

Thomas Jay Oord

Thomas Jay Oord, Ph.D., is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. Oord directs the Center for Open and Relational Theology and doctoral students at Northwind Theological Seminary. He is an award-winning author and has written or edited more than twenty-five books, including his newest book, Pluriform Love.  A gifted speaker, Oord lectures at universities, conferences, churches, and institutions. He is known for contributions to research on love, science and religion, open and relational theology, the problem of suffering, and the implications of freedom for transformational relationships.

46 posts about this topic

Join the conversation on the BioLogos forum

At BioLogos, “gracious dialogue” means demonstrating the grace of Christ as we dialogue together about the tough issues of science and faith.

Join the Conversation