What type of God do you believe in? A cosmic policeman? A supernatural dictator who controls our every move, i.e. a divine control freak? Someone/thing to be wheeled out for emergencies or life events?
Or some will simply say “There is no God”. However I will not go down that route as I do beleive in God and more specifically the Christian God as Trinity. This book does not take a simplistic view of god as do some atheists or the naive evangelical who likes to keep god in a box.
Published by IVP in USA but available in UK
Paperback: 229 pages Publisher: IVP Academic (6 Dec. 2015) Language: English
ISBN-10: 0830840842 ISBN-13: 978-083084084
Ther title itself is almost provocative implying that God is not always in control! So often popular views of God claim just that – God is in absolute control!!!!!!! It comes out in expositions of Providence where God is believed to be in charge or control and dictates even the smallest aspects of life – good or bad. (Did God really predestine me to twist my ankle on an easy path!) This comes out strongest in some forms of Calvinism, which virtually deny any choice or freewill to a human, but that everything is predestined and every mortal is also predestined either to heaven or the fires of hell. The other weakness of this type of Calvinism is that everything is subsumed to predestination and Jesus Christ is pushed to the margins.
At a popular level Christians are often told that God has a plan for their lives right down to the last detail. Is that really so? Was it actually God’s plan that two friends died of cancer at 29 leaving their wives each with two small children? We can repeat that a million times. More flippantly to make the point, was it God’s plan that I should hit some diesel fuel when cycling round a roundabout and falling off my bike? I was unhurt, partly due to the excellent driving of the driver behind me.
Even more questions are raised by suffering. Why did my friends die at 29? Why did God let the Aberfan disaster happen in 1966? Or as Darwin asked why did God allow the ichneumon fly deposit its eggs in a caterpillar thereby eating it from inside out? Can a benevolent God do all this?
Well, I have raised some of the problems of theism, and it may seem that atheism or agnosticism is a better alternative, but they have problems of their own.
And to the book!
The author Thomas Oord is a theology professor at a Nazarene University in Idaho. (The Nazarenes are a breakaway from Methodism and in the USA are a bit iffy about evolution and Ooord has run into trouble here.) Oord has written widely especailly science and Christiasnity. He is an advocate of Open Theism which make his ideas a no-no to strong Calvinists. His pastime (and a source for inspiration) is exploring the wild country of Idaho on foot. He often posts his excellent photos on Facebook. As he says in this book philosphy, scripture, science and theology come together and all mulled over in the Idaho back-country.
The book begins with the biggest problem for any theist -SUFFERING. Thus the first chapter takes two incidents; the Boston Marathon bommbers and a bizarre raod accident when a freak stone was thrown throw a windscreen killing the passenger. Were these Acts of God? Oord says no and that they raise questions on the nature of God. This seems to be Rick Warren’s view. In his best-selling book, The Purpose Driven Life, Warren says, “Because God is sovereignly in control, accidents are just incidents in God’s good plan for you.”2 Warren seems to be saying “accidents” are not truly accidental from the divine perspective because they were predetermined as part of a divine blueprint. From a timeless divine perspective, it’s all a part of a master plan. Further the contemporary theologian R. C. Sproul, a strong Calvinist and founder of the Ligonier Ministries, rejects randomness and chance with these dramatic comments: “The mere existence of chance is enough to rip God from his cosmic throne. . . . If chance exists in its frailest possible form, God is finished.”
Oord simply cannot accept the claims of Warren and Sproul and nor can I. To him it is too deterministic and he stresses that complete determinism is impossible to a physicist, (to which I would add a geologists as well, as I have asked “In what way is a glacier intelligently designed?” That cannot be seen in a moraine.)
He regards Free Will as genuine but limited and faces the Problem of evil and then stresses the Problem of Good is a real problem for unbelievers. That last point he does not develop………..
All of this circles around any concept of Providence and he states(p79) “We need a plausible model for providence.” To him a calvinist understanding of Providence is not and them (p81) gives Seven Models of God’s Providence. These are; with no guesses to which Oord inclines to as the most plausible.
1 God is the omnicause.
2 God empowers and overpowers.
3 God is voluntarily self-limited.
4 God is essentially kenotic.
5 God sustains as impersonal force.
6 God is initial creator and current observer.
7 God’s ways are not our ways.
Of course, the first is classic Calvinism and Oord points out this “says God caused all the tragic evils we encountered in chapter one”. It is surprising how often some Christians actually believe this and put forward ideas in essays I have to mark! He states the second is the most widely held and that the last is the early Barth. I do not find the appeal to paradox satisfying. (To me it is simply holding up one’s hands.)
With someone who is an Open Theist it is no surprise that Oord favours the third and fourth options and more so the fourth.
We are now in the heart of the book and discusses it in the next three chapters and 90 pages. Not everyone will like his stance as being too Open Theistic but he makes a strong case. Part is that he accepts “randomness and regularity, freedom and neccessity, good and evil”, which an observant person should hold, even though it scuppers a Calvinistic Providence. He wrestles with how far God knows the future and comes to a different view to Grenville Yarnold (The Moving Image 1966 p186) who typifies the older non-Calvinist view of an Anglo-Catholic perspective, who said “It is clear then that we must postulate the completeness of God’s knowledge of our choices, not because of his infinity but on account of his timelessness.” Oord says in contrast, “Neither God nor creatures know with certainty all that will actually occur. The future is open.” (p106)
As Oord develops this, he looks to Polkinghorne in particular and also Barbour, Clayton, Haught and Peacocke, who say much the same. The change in understanding of God’s involvement in the world of the last half century has not only been some Evangelicals adopting Open Theism, but other traditions moving from a classic view epitomised by Yarnold above, who closely followed Eric Mascall, a leading Anglo-catholic theologian in the mid 20th century. Not a few have moved to Process Theology or Panentheism. It is interesting to note that when Peacocke began his work on science and religion in the 50s he made a special visit to Yarnold for advice as he was one of the few exponents of science and religion then. ( My source for this is Yarnold himself, who told me this in about 1990 shortly before he died. I need to add that Yarnold was my uncle.) Peacocke had long held a form of Panentheism.
Going off-piste for a moment, I wonder part of the problem comes down to both a logical philosophical approach combined with a biblical hermeneutic which insists that the Bible communicates in propositions rather than using metaphor and rhetoric among other devices. So much of Paul’s comments in his letters are more rhetoric than proposition. Romans 9 to 11 is far more rhetoric than propositional statements. I suspect Oord would have joined me off-piste. Or I should say off-trail as we both enjoy that.
(A valley in the Forest of Bowland with no defined trail)
In chapter 7 he develops his Essential Kenotic Model of Providence which goes further than Phillipians 2 and is akin to ideas of Moltmann. Oord says “Jesus’ love is evident, says Paul, in his diminished power and his service to others” with the implication that this applies to the whole Godhead and to some could be Patripassianism! He considers evil in the light of this kenosis and that “God cannot unilaterally prevent genuine evil”. I would prefer “does not”. I find his arguments for this (self?) limitation of God not totally convincing but understand what he is driving at – summed up with this, “Absolute soveriegnty is absolutely unbelievable”. That statement I find irrefutable though no Calvinist would accept it.
I cite in full his self-comparison with Polkinghorne, “Polkinghorne also says that the regularities described by physics “are pale reflections of [God’s] faithfulness towards his creation. . . . He will not interfere in their operation in a fitful or capricious way, for that would be for the Eternally Reliable to turn himself into an occasional conjurer.” I agree with Polkinghorne here as well. But I would say that God cannot interfere with these lawlike regularities, not just that God will not interfere.
The processes and regularities in life derive from God’s nature of essentially kenotic love.”
At this point I agree with Polkinghorne that God WILL NOT rather than CANNOT interfere, but that gives food for thought. Oord’s aim is to present a loving God and that “a coercive love of God is fictional.” That means that the predestination and irresistible providence of Calvinism is both untenable and cotrary to the nature of God.
There is much more to say and I have not commented on his chapter on miracles!
In conclusion the strength of Oord’s book is that he does not start with a very abstract concept of God’s providence, which separated from the kenotic love of Christ tends to be deterministic and amkes God the author of all evil and suffering.
Oord does not give an answer, but rather works towards not so much answers but a living and working faith which can help to deal with all the shit that life flings at us. But it is no use if you want simple answers, but if that is what you want I am sure you can find them.
However if your faith thrives on living with questions, this will be a book for you.