God Can’t by Thomas Jay Oord
I have known Tom Oord a long time. I wan an eighteen year old freshman when I sat in his gen-ed philosophy class at Eastern Nazarene College in January of 2000. I was a history major at the time, with no intentions of studying theology; it was a class I had to take, I was a year ahead in the sequence, and I wasn’t really ready to wrestle with those ideas. Still, my enduring memory of that course was (and I hope we know each other well enough now for me to use this phrase) being subjected to Oord’s version of the (terrible) early Christian rock he loves so much.
I don’t remember if he played all the instruments, but I know he wrote it and I’m pretty sure he sang it (and I hope desperately it survives somewhere and makes its way to Youtube). It was called, or at least about, the “Teleological Suspension of the Ethical.” I suppose the fact that I remember the title eighteen years later is proof it was an effective pedagogical choice, although I do admit I had to look up Teleological Suspension of the Ethical for a refresher on its meaning.
I’m glad I did, because what I meant as an endearing and marginally embarrassing story actually provides good introduction to Oord’s new book:God Can’t. The Teleological Suspension of the Ethical is a philosophical argument from Soren Kierkegaard wherein a person is asked by God to set aside ethical norms for a higher purpose. The classic example is Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac; God asks Abraham to murder as a sign of obedience to God. Of course, we presume after the fact that God didn’t intend for Abraham to go through with the killing, but that’s not really pertinent to Abraham’s decision: a teleological suspension of the ethical.
Having now followed Oord through a pretty lengthy and highly-praised career, it’s pretty clear to see how the issue of God’s consistency has become central to Oord’s philosophical projects. God Can’t is really a continuation of the things he was exploring in that song all those years ago: How can we maintain God’s integrity in light of our increasing understanding and experience of the universe God created?
Kierkegaard’s answer was simply that God’s purpose (telos) trumps everything else – God does what God needs to do to accomplish God’s mission. There’s nothing wrong with that answer, but it’s never going to satisfy such a committed Wesleyan as Oord (or myself). Love is the ultimate divine character trait for people in our tradition – and, if you take the logic far enough – love becomes more than a character trait, but the very definition of the divine. God is love. We take that very seriously and quite literally.
At this point in his thinking and writing, Oord’s found an effective writing pattern, wherein he presents a new idea in a very technical, academic way in one volume, then follows with a book on the same idea written for a wider audience. This is how he connects his passion for academic philosophy with his call and mission to serve the world pastorally.God Can’t is the popular exploration of his recent The Uncontrolling Love of God.
In many ways the idea is not new – Oord himself has been working out how to explain God as love for most of his adult life – but his challenging explanation has not been presented so succinctly or directly as it is in God Can’t. He’s essentially challenging the long-held Christian belief that God is omnipotent, specifically, that God is all-loving and true love is uncontrolling, therefore, because God has given agency to creation, God can’t force people (or things) to do what they don’t want to do.
There are some semantic arguments to be had there: one could argue that love itself is coercive; receiving real and genuine love from another changes us. We can certainly resist and refuse love, but it is a force that works towards its own multiplication. I imagine other thinkers and philosophers might explain the same thing in very different ways. I appreciate Oord’s direct use of “can’t,” though, because it frees us from some of those Christian presumptions which come more form Greek philosophy than they do from Hebrew tradition or even scripture itself.
Oord’s made these challenges before. He’s written about God’s relationship to time that challenges not only whether God can know the future (omniscience), but whether the future is even something knowable. The ability to make such uncomfortable observations and ask what many presume to be dangerous questions comes from a deep Wesleyan commitment to refuse fear. Perfect love casts out fear. If God is love, our questions and re-conceptualizations pose no danger, neither to God, nor to our own salvation.
Oord writes with a loving heart and the best of intentions. The very fact he chooses to make his ideas more accessible to the average person proves his pastoral heart. Each of the five chapters addresses a simple notion that colloquial Christianity takes for granted and probably gets wrong: God Can’t Prevent Evil; God Feels Our Pain; God Always Works for Healing; God Works to Bring Good from Bad (but doesn’t cause evil); and God Needs Our Cooperation.
Whole books are necessary to unpack the arguments and challenges inherent in those simple statements and God Can’t is the first one you should read. Beyond providing comfort to those who have, do, and will suffer evil, it sparks deep theological engagement in ways that are open and accessible to nearly anyone. The language is easy to understand, the chapters are short, and Oord reiterates his points multiple times, from different angles, and using real life stories.
The weakest portion is in chapter three, on healing, where Oord overly simplifies arguments on the afterlife to smooth over one of the most pressing questions of life: namely it’s length. He downplays the importance of physical bodies in Christian views of resurrection, which avoids the full exploration of the relationship between the present and eternity. That question is beyond the scope of the book and probably doesn’t have as simple or easy an answer as Oord provides in the rest of God Can’t, so perhaps this isn’t the time or place, but the treatment of the issue here was certainly less than satisfactory to me.*
Overall, God Can’t is an excellent resource for any person (Christian or otherwise) struggling with suffering and faith. It re-frames the conversation about suffering and faith. While it does leave us with more questions than answers, it’s a much healthier place for exploration of God and scripture than those presentations of faith that purport to answer everything. It’s especially poignant and timely in this age where so many are abandoning Christian faith because of it’s failure to address the realities of the world. God Can’t does so with love, genuine concern for people, and without fear.
*I also have an issue with him using “evil one” as an analog for Satan. I’m not sure that reflects the most responsible scriptural view of Satan, especially in a book that essentially ascribes responsibility for sin to creation itself and free will, but that is certainly an argument and discussion for another time.
Personal Coda: I’m more grateful than ever for Tom Oord. The ideas he was wrestling with when I met him are not things that generally resonated with me. He was much more entrenched in Process Philosophy and Theology, which never really satisfied the evangelical part of me that was still pretty comfortable with traditional approaches. My time in seminary led me to ideas more informed by Open and Relational views of God that prioritize scripture over theological or philosophical interpretations. As I engaged that world more deeply, lo and behold I discovered Tom Oord had migrated there as well. I’m sure he’d connect his early and more recent influences more closely than would I, but I appreciate the place and prominence of scripture, practicality, and pastoral considerations in the work he’s doing now. It’s comforting to see the Holy Spirit drawing all of us towards the truth in fits and starts. I’m really honored to have been asked to read and review this book. I hope you’ll all give it a chance.