Book Review: The Uncontrolling Love of God

Book Review: The Uncontrolling Love of God

Author: Thomas Jay Oord

Publisher: InterVarsity Press ISBN: 9780830840847

The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence

I like Tom Oord. I like that he is a thinker. I like that even when he postulates an idea, he’s not always resolute in its absoluteness. He seems to always be exploring, processing, and attempting to understand. I remember the first time I was exposed to the “open view” of God, sometime around twelve or thirteen years ago, and I immediately rejected the idea as something that could ever be considered within the paradigm of my theology. I could not escape the gnaw of this open view though, and when it appeared on my radar again around eight years ago, I started to do some investigation and deeper reading. Tom Oord and others have been instrumental in the continuing evolution of my thought, perception, and growing relationship with God through their writing and lectures on a more open and expansive understanding of God’s relationship and His engagement in the lives of men and women. While I’m not an open theist, I know for certain my understanding of God and relationship I live with Him is far more healthier now than it has ever been in my life, in large part because of my willingness to engage this dynamic of the uncontrolling love of God. I share this preface for those who may be highly resistant to ideas previously foreign to your thinking about God. I was that guy. I am no longer that guy. This is a worthy book to read.

Oord begins this work with questions regarding the goodness of God and the tragic events that can call that goodness into question; these are the “why questions” and the reasoning behind the chapter title Tragedy Needs Explanation.

The case for God’s uncontrolling love builds with chapter two as Oord further develops his thesis, drawing distinctions between God’s sovereign control over every detail of existence and the possibility of randomness as a factor in the circumstances and happenings of life. It will be necessary for each reader to draw their own conclusion, but one thing I particularly enjoyed from this chapter was the brilliant synthesis of philosophy, science-physics, and theology. I think, in general terms, we are often want to speak and quantify our beliefs in binary terms… If I am reading Oord’s ideas correctly in this section, he promotes a mixed view of causation and randomness in all the events and circumstances of life, he concludes this chapter with these words; “Both randomness and regularity persist in the universe.”  I have likely way oversimplified his wonderful presentation, but this is my simple review and my very, very brief synopsis.

The elements of free will and determination are explored in chapter three, which was a very insightful and interesting read. There are far too many excellent points in this chapter to do justice in this short review, but I can share a teaser with the following quote:

The two words, free and will, capture what most people mean when they talk about the freedom to choose in any particular moment. But philosophers use various terms to talk about free will. The philosophical label libertarian free will describes what I believe is the most plausible view of freedom. Libertarian free will says genuine freedom is irreconcilable with being fully determined to act in a particular way. Libertarian-free-will supporters are incompatiblists because they believe we cannot be simultaneously free and entirely determined by other forces. In other words, free will and complete determinism are incompatible. We choose among alternatives, and other agents and factors do not completely control us. (p. 59)

I think, one of the big takeaways for me from this chapter, is the affirmation of my own conclusion regarding my conversion from Calvinism (many years ago). In my opinion, as echoed in the above quote, theistic determinism is incompatible with free will. Now, granted this statement leaves much unanswered, but those unanswered questions are much of what Oord’s book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, explores (and a great reason to purchase and read it).

As I have alluded previously, I appreciate the approach of Oord to not bifurcate the discussion of theodicy with “either/or” statements about God and instead embrace more of a “both/and” approach to understanding this complex conversation. Again, this is my interpretation and I hope I am not oversimplifying or misrepresenting the nature and discussion in this book. You’ll need to read it and judge for yourself. A great case for my observation can be found in the presentation of Models of God’s Providence (beginning pg. 83, chapter four). Once more, in my opinion, this might be one of the more important chapters in the book. I think it can serve for some very deep and healthy discussion (albeit possibly fired with much passion), and would be an excellent reason for introducing this book in a study group. The ways we think about God and His actions among us have serious repercussions and ramifications. A conversation concerning the models of God’s providence is a great introduction to explore ways we think about God.

Tom Oord has written and lectured extensively on the open and relational view of God. It is in chapter five that he begins to fully engage this position deeply with relation to tragedy, free will, determination, and love within the scope of the God and humanity relationship. For the sake of ease and the benefit of my friends who will read this review and likely be unfamiliar with the open view of God, I will include Oord’s major defining points for this position. He writes in the opening statements of chapter five.

Open and relational theology embraces the reality of randomness and regularity, freedom and necessity, good and evil. It asserts that God exists and that God acts objectively and responsively in the world. This theology usually embraces at least these three ideas:

  1. God and creatures relate to one another. God makes a real difference to creation, and creation makes a real difference to God. God is relational.
  2. The future is not set because it has not yet been determined. Neither God nor creatures know with certainty all that will actually occur. The future is open.
  3. Love is God’s chief attribute. Love is the primary lens through which we best understand God’s relation with creatures and the relations creatures should have with God and others. Love matters most.

Advocates of open and relational theology may describe their views a little differently from the way I have here. Some add other beliefs. Among the open and relational theology books of importance and in addition to those cited, but most advocates embrace at least these three statements. (pg. 107)

Please note as quoted above that Oord describes this as his defining points of the Open and Relational View of God, while others will add other defining points to the position.

While this chapter represents a big-picture view of the open and relational dynamic of God, it is not just a high-level fly by. There is much depth to the presentation and Oord has done a remarkable job of annotating sources from a diverse group of thinkers and theologians. Additionally, with such depth of thinking, one can often get lost in the academic structure of the discussion; this is not so with Oord’s presentation. He has also performed admirably to bring the conversation to an every-day-man level of understanding. I believe this chapter could easily be a standalone work expressing this particular view of God.

Chapter six is a chapter I will have to return to and read more closely. I admit that it is a portion of the book that I skimmed more than I digested, unlike the slower more deliberate approach I took with previous chapters. In it, Oord dialogues quite extensively with John Sanford’s work in his book, The God Who Risks: A Theology of Divine Providence. Oord expresses the importance of this chapter as a preface to his summary conclusion.

Similar to my statements from chapter six, I extend my thoughts to the concluding chapters of seven and eight where Oord offers the brunt of reason behind his position and his concluding statements. It is with complete transparency that I offer my inconclusiveness. The jury is still out for me with regard to theodicy and the working of God within the parameters of His sovereignty and humanity’s unrestricted free will. I admit I don’t understand all the myriad ways of God’s working within the scope of humanity and free will. At this juncture, I’m willing to live in the divine tension of God’s mystery. I say this while fully engaged in asking questions of God and pondering with deepest contemplation (love) all the knowledge that God will impart regarding these deep and soulful questions about our existence and the ways of life in the midst of brokenness and people still separated from God by the distorted image of God within them. Even while I make these admissions about myself, there are several points that Oord makes in his Kenosis chapter (seven) that put me on edge…and for the very reasons that he gives his voice under his subheading Essential Kenosis and Evil, also found in chapter seven. I have learned that this type of discomfort I describe is when I need to pay attention very closely; I need to proceed slowly and allow God the Holy Spirit to guide my understanding. That is not to say that I will eventually be swayed to another view, but that I will remain objective in my search for truth and be wary of my personal biases as well as positions anchored in personal conviction. I think I’ll end my review on that note.

This is an excellent and very thought-worthy book. I think it will make a fabulous group study. In my opinion, there’s no way a person can read The Uncontrolling Love of God and not find subjects worthy of engagement. There’s a lot here and some deep thinking, but not too difficult to approach even for high school students. I think it also serves as a compilation and expository summary of many of Oord’s earlier works, which can be helpful if you’ve read much of his writing or if you’ve read none. The book is well annotated with extensive footnotes. I’m reading a proof copy, so I’m not sure if this is the final version of the book or not. I do not know if there will be additional appendices or if there will be a bibliography included, but in either event, this is a very worthy read. Thanks Tom for stretching my theology and giving me pause to evaluate my positions.

The book is currently available for preorder at Amazon and is scheduled for release Dec. 06, 2015

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