Thomas Jay Oord. God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils. SacraSage Press, 2020.
“Why God?” It is a question that has been asked by countless people. “Why did you allow me to get cancer?” “Why do you allow children to starve?” “Why do you allow a pandemic like COVID-19?” From a philosophical perspective, it is a problem that has been with us at least since Epicurus: if God is all-powerful, there should be no evil; if he is all-good, he should not desire any evil. And yet, there is evil. Why?
The standard Christian theological response has been to explain that even though God is all-powerful and all-good, he nonetheless has some reason why he allows evil. In God Can’t, Thomas Jay Oord takes a different approach. In line with Harold Kushner’s influential book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, he finds the traditional theodicies — greater goods and soul-making, free will, mystery/skeptical theism — to be woefully inadequate: bad systematic theology and bad pastoral theology.
So how should we address this classic trilemma? In Oord’s view, the way forward is to realize that God cannot stop a single evil. At least, God can’t do it on his own. Bad things happen because God’s hands are tied: he cannot control actions and events and processes. Instead, God is limited to a “love synergy” in which he works with creatures to prevent evil. (As an aside, is it just me or does “Love Synergy” totally sound like the name for a disco group?)
Alas, the partnership of this love synergy is simply inadequate to stop all the evils that occur. The practical implication of this theology is seen in a man named Dave who describes how he interprets his own suffering through this perspective:
“‘God could not stop my parents from abandoning me. And God could not stop the male molester who preyed upon me from the age of eleven until I was eighteen,’ wrote Dave. But ‘God smiled when my molester went out with family rather than wait for me on my paper route.” (171)
The appeal of this radical chastening of divine power is to save God’s love. God wishes he could’ve stopped Dave’s molestation but he was unable to do so:
“When we understand that God cannot heal singlehandedly, we solve the problem of selective miracles. If God always works to heal but cannot control anyone or anything, it’s not God’s fault when healing does not occur.” (93)
The motivation to protect divine love is clear enough, but why precisely does Oord believe God is limited in this way? Oord appears to make his case by appealing both to a metaphysical explanation and a moral explanation. I will now take a look at each.
The Metaphysical Theme: Action requires a body
The metaphysical theme is based on the fact that God lacks a physical body coupled with the notion that action in the world is always mediated through a physical body. Here are some excerpts in which Oord describes his position:
“God does not have a divine body with which to block evil or rescue creatures. By contrast, creatures do have bodies to exert bodily impact on others. and creatures sometimes use their bodies to stop evil.” (32)
“Here’s where ‘God is a universal spirit without a physical body’ matters.
“God has no divine hand, literally speaking, to snatch us from the path of oncoming cars or grab us before entering a fire. God has no divine arm and legs to carry people from a warzone. God has no body to stand between gunmen and potential victims. God has no arms to wrap around a distraught person to keep her from cutting herself. But because creatures have localized, physical bodies, they sometimes can prevent evil.
“A bodiless, universal spirit cannot do what embodied creatures sometimes can.” (33)
“God has no hands or body parts to cause a hurricane or volcanic eruption. Nor can God literally step in front of a hurricane or sit on a volcano. God cannot use a divine finger to stop a virus or rearrange rocks in a landslide.” (132-33)
The way that I read these passages calls to mind the trope of a ghost desperately attempting to communicate or interact with the living world but then discovering to her dismay that she is unable to be seen, heard, or manipulate objects because of her lack of a body. She is nothing more than a mere spectral wisp.
I find this to be an enormously problematic picture. Not only does it suggest that God has less ability to actualize particular states of affairs within creation than does an embodied human toddler. It also misses an obvious parallel between the human being’s action upon their body and God’s action upon creation. Consider, my action upon my body is immediate: I will to raise my hand and my hand raises. As a dualist, I would say this is an example of dualist interactionism in which the soul/mind can act immediately upon the body and then through the body with the world. By analogy, I understand God to be a soul/mind that is non-embodied (sans incarnation) and God acts with a parallel immediacy in the world to our action on our bodies.
Some panentheists have suggested we go further and argue that creation should be thought of as God’s body. One need not make that leap to recognize the general point that God’s action on creation is immediate and need not be mediated through a physical body. Still, those inclined to explore a panentheistic model could simply say that the world is in some sense God’s body. And thus, if I can control my body with immediate discrete action, so God can control his world with immediate discrete action: if I can raise my arm at will, then God can stop the abuse of a predator.
Admittedly, some Christian theologians may not find that dualist framework for divine action to be workable given their commitment to a reductive or non-reductive physicalist account of the human person. However, that is not Oord’s view. On the contrary, his account of the person appears to be strongly dualistic, if not gnostic. To illustrate, he offers two possible views for the afterlife: either we continue to exist as disembodied souls or we receive spiritual bodies that replace our current physical bodies (99). Curiously, he never considers the mainstream orthodox Christian view that our resurrection bodies are numerically the same bodies that we possess now just as the firstfruit of resurrection, Jesus himself, had his same body resurrected (with the tomb left empty). So not only are Oord’s views on the human person a curious departure from orthodoxy, but their dualistic nature also begs the question of why he doesn’t consider divine action in creation in analogy with human action on the body.
Suffice it to say, I find his metaphysical argument to be without merit.
The Moral Theme: Love is Non-Coercive
While the impossibility of disembodied action is a comparatively minor theme within the book, the major theme centers on Oord’s claim that love is non-coercive. If God were to intervene in particular moments in creation, God would be coercive. But because God is always loving, God cannot coerce. And so it follows that God does not, and indeed cannot, intervene: “Love doesn’t control, in the sense of being a sufficient cause. Therefore, it’s impossible for a loving God to control others.” (153)
It is important to understand the sweeping nature of Oord’s claim. It isn’t simply that it would be unloving to override the will of evil actors such as the molester who was assaulting Dave (though that is problematic enough). It is also unloving to alter the trajectory of even one subatomic particle. God cannot intervene at any level in the nexus of causes because any such intervention would be unloving.
So how does God influence creation? As noted above, according to Oord, God acts through “love synergy.” After reading the book, the nexus between divine influence and the natural continuum of causes is pretty foggy to me, though I suspect Oord offers more clarity in his more academically-oriented book The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence.
However, I do want to argue at this point that I simply find Oord’s attempt to exonerate God by appealing to love synergy to be uncompelling and to offer no advantage over conventional notions of providence. Here I’ll make two points.
First, I simply don’t accept the claim that any particular divine action in nature would thereby be coercive for the simple reason that action in nature generally is not automatically coercive. I am not coercing anything when I type this review or sip my morning coffee, for example. But let’s take a more robust case, one that involves human beings and potential suffering. Let’s say that I know you are struggling with alcohol and that if there is alcohol at the family get together this weekend, you’ll drink and end up going on a bender. So I call ahead and ask the hosts not to serve alcohol. They agree. We all go to the family get-together and have a great time, you see no alcohol, and you don’t go on a bender. Alls well that ends well, right? I certainly didn’t coerce you to do anything. I did persuade the hosts, but they freely decided not to serve the booze after I informed them of the situation. Suffice it to say, if I can interact in the world non-coercively for your benefit, I fail to see why God is suddenly engaging in verboten coercion the second he manipulates a single subatomic particle.
Second, there are plenty of circumstances where coercion would be welcome. Yes folks, that means that I reject outright Oord’s claim that love never engages in non-coercive action. It is obvious that any human person would be loving if they prevented that molester from abusing Dave. But why is it that the necessarily existent God who created and sustains everything is hamstrung by a non-intervention clause? God forbid, if my child were the victim of abuse, I’d want to scream at God for following a non-intervention policy that would allow predators to molest small children under the notion that any intervention would be coercive. What kind of love is this that declines to “coerce” a child predator by preventing him from perpetuating his evil? Please God, coerce the bastard!
Oord’s treatment of other theodicies in the book is quick and dismissive if not outright strawmanning. For example, this is what he says about soul-making theodicies:
“I believe God uses suffering to mature us. And God responds to evil by helping us and others in positive ways But I don’t think God causes or allows suffering and evil for this purpose. After all, evil doesn’t always produce a mature character.”(134, first emphasis added)
Oord poses a false dilemma here by assuming that if soul-making cannot explain all suffering or evil then it cannot explain any of it. But of course, that doesn’t follow at all. Most theodicies are not exclusive and the theodicist may thus believe that soul-making explains some degree of evil and suffering which may be supplemented by other theodicies. Oord’s treatment of other conventional theodicies is, in my view, equally dismissive and unsatisfactory.
Theology and the Pastoral Concern
Oord believes that the pastoral appeal of his synergistic love theodicy is a major selling point which should carefully be considered by critics:
“I know, of course, some people will oppose the view I’ve presented. Some will find it alarming or unsettling. Despite the comfort it gives those who hurt, critics will reject it.” (182)
But note that these words can be turned back on Oord.
I know, of course, that Oord and some other people oppose meticulous providence. Some will find it alarming or unsettling. Despite the comfort it gives to those who hurt, critics will reject it.
I think we can safely say that subjective responses do not settle the issue. However, it is worth noting that contrary to what Oord seems to think, millions of Christians do take comfort in the orthodox conception of the meticulous divine governance of all creation. Indeed, in the book, he spends significant time discussing one of them: Joni Eareckson Tada. So why doesn’t her opinion count, to say nothing of the millions of others like her?
Much of Oord’s case against traditional theodicies rests with the revulsion people who are suffering rightly feel to hamfisted and insensitive explanations on why they are suffering. However, Oord seems unaware that when people are in the midst of searing pain, any theological explanation is likely to be salt in the wound. If you’ve just lost your infant child to SIDS, you will not likely want to hear John Piper prattling on about meticulous providence. But neither will you want to hear Thomas Jay Oord prattling on about how God couldn’t stop your infant child’s death because of his non-coercive love synergy. When people are suffering, every theodicy is prattle. When people are suffering, they want to cry and scream and lament. And they want you to sit with them on their mourning bench while they do it.
A Pragmatic Conclusion
Near the end of the book, Oord tells us that he lost his faith in his early twenties and he only regained it after adopting the theology outlined in this book (180). Further, he notes throughout the book other individuals like Dave, the victim of child molestation, who likewise found faith only after surrendering divine omnipotence. I can’t say that I’d rather people reject Christianity altogether than that they be Christians with the theology of this book. But I will say that I hope those who find Oord’s arguments persuasive may one day find their way back to a more orthodox conception of divine sovereignty.
Thanks to Thomas Jay Oord for a review copy of the book. To purchase your own copy of God Can’t, click here.