Five Questions of My Theology of Love

December 10th, 2019 / No Comments

An academic book of essays on love was recently published. My friend Kevin Vanhoozer wrote the first essay, and the second is my response.

Kevin criticizes my theology of love in various ways, preferring instead John Webster’s theology. I address his criticisms in my full essay, but I thought I’d excerpt a portion here. For the full essay, get the book.

Kevin asks five questions, which I list below and offer brief answers. I’m posting these because they might be questions others have.

1) How does Oord reconcile his definition of love as intentional action with his insistence that God necessarily loves everyone, everywhere, all the time?

Answer: I affirm that God can love both intentionally and necessarily. I see no conflict in affirming both. In my view, God necessarily loves, but God freely chooses various ways to love.

Because love comes logically first in God’s nature and God “cannot deny himself” (2 Tm. 2:13), God must love. God is not free to do otherwise. But God is free when deciding how to love. The how of love is contingent, not necessary.

I embrace the essentialist tradition when it comes to believing God cannot deny God’s own nature. But because I believe God faces an open and yet to be determined future, I also embrace voluntarist claims about God’s free choices in choosing how to love. God freely acts in various ways when anticipating what may occur in the future.

As an analogy, let’s assume that my human nature leads me necessarily to act humanly. I can necessarily act as a human and still intentionally choose to type this sentence instead of another. I’m free in this sense. In fact, I’m free to type a wide variety of sentences, despite not being free to be other than human.

In this way, necessity in nature and free intentional action coexist. We can necessarily be human and yet free to act variously as humans. Analogously, God can necessarily love everyone and yet freely and intentionally choose how to love moment by moment.

(2) Does Oord truly preserve the Creator/creature distinction, or is God on the same metaphysical level with the rest of created reality? If the call to love that God gives each creature is in one sense “no different from the causal influence that other creatures exert,” then doesn’t God exist on the same plane of being as everything else?

Answer: At the start of his essay, Vanhoozer provides a teaser about the worries he voices in this question and that emerge later in his essay. He worries that my theology might be a Feuerbachian projection.

Vanhoozer offers theological realism as an alternative to anthropomorphic hubris, a position that says we can be wrong in our descriptions of God’s love. I join Vanhoozer in being a realist in this sense. I don’t think we can ever grasp divine love fully or define it perfectly. We see through a glass darkly.

I also believe, however, that we should seek to know something of the God whom we can never fully know. I think we should try to grasp divine love as best we can and define it as well as possible. In this, I steer clear of both absolute apophatism and thoroughgoing anthropomorphism.

To make sense of God’s love, actions, and more, I think we should draw bidirectional analogies between Creator and creatures. Without them, I think we fail to do justice to the biblical witness and fail to understand well what it means to be made in the image of God. We can embrace such bidirectional analogies without considering God to be on the same metaphysical level or plane as creatures. Creator and creatures differ in some respects but also share some similarities. I’ll address this more in the second half of this response.

(3) Does Oord derive his definition of love from the event of Jesus Christ or from somewhere else?

Answer: Vanhoozer asks this question as an either/or choice. For me, the answer is both/and. I accept the revelation of God’s love found in Jesus and the revelation of God in creation more generally. As I see it, the clearest expression of love comes in Jesus, and therefore he becomes crucial to defining love well. But I’m also confident that my views of love have been shaped by the broader biblical witness, the Christian community, and the revelation of God in creation more generally.

Because God is omnipresent and self-revealing to all creation, those who know nothing of Jesus can accept my definition of love. In fact, adherents of other religious traditions affirm my definition. Those involved in other religions may find resonance between my views of love and what they find about love in their own texts and communities, thanks to God’s prevenient grace expressed throughout all creation.[1]  

(4) In “solving” the problem of evil by stipulating God’s nature as uncontrolling love, does Oord render insoluble the equally important question, “What may we hope?” Oord stresses the importance of human participation in what he calls “participatory eschatology”: “God’s kenotic love invites creatures to participate in securing victory.” But why think that the entropic universe, much less rebellious children, will come around to God’s way at the end of time? Does not this solution to the problem of evil render evil metaphysically unavoidable and necessary?

Answer: There are several questions here. All of them point to eschatological concerns. Answering them well requires at least a book. But I’ll offer a few brief responses that I hope provide light. (I also offered a blog essay on my eschatology, which readers can find here.)

My theology of love’s eschatological vision does not support the kind of universalism that some theologians desire. While it supports the hope that all will cooperate with God, it does not support theories that require divine coercion for redemption.

My participatory eschatology provides some guarantees. It guarantees that God never gives up seeking to save the lost. It guarantees that God’s love is always uncontrolling. God never uses coercion but always calls creatures to say “yes” to abundant life. This inviting, empowering, but uncontrolling love is expressed both in this life and the next. God’s wooing never ceases.

My eschatology also guarantees that those who cooperate with God in this life and the next enjoy abundant life. It supports the hope that cooperators enjoy untold bliss in the afterlife. It cannot guarantee that everyone will enjoy this bliss, because it says God never forces the good life on others. God respects the freedom of rebellious children who continue to reject salvation.

In sum, my eschatology rejects unilaterally secured universalism. But it also rejects the view that God gives up loving creatures and offering eternal life. My vision provides genuine hope for abundant life here and now and eternal bliss there and then for those who cooperate with God’s love.

(5) If Oord is right, is the God who is uncontrolling love more deserving of our worship or sympathy?

Answer: The God of uncontrolling love is worthy of our worship. I worship this God unreservedly and wholeheartedly. Doing so brings me great joy!

I’ve spent significant time thinking about what vision of God provokes my worship. I’ve come to think it’s impossible for me to worship a God who could prevent genuine evil but fails to do so. I don’t unequivocally respect humans who fail to prevent evil when their doing so was possible.

So I can’t unequivocally worship a God capable of preventing genuine evil but who fails to do so. I may dread this God. But I could not unreservedly love and worship such a being. As I see it, the God who can control is unworthy of my worship.

Vanhoozer’s mentions pity as a possible response to my vision of God, and this reminds me of a recent conversation. I was explaining to a fellow theologian that the uncontrolling God cannot prevent genuine evil by acting alone. My friend responded that he prefers a God who can control. He smirked and said, “You know, Tom, your God is just doing the best He can.” I thought about his remark and responded, “Your God could be doing a whole lot more. But He apparently doesn’t care enough to do so!”

I mention this conversation because it illustrates how love is my fundamental theological intuition. When I think about a God worthy of worship, I find far more winsome the vision of a God who consistently loves but cannot control than a God who can control but loves inconsistently by causing or allowing evil.

Some claim the God they affirm both controls and loves consistently. In light of evil, they say it is a mystery how God does both. This measure of mystery, however, detracts from my worship. I’m unable to worship a God who cannot be understood to such a degree.

I can’t get motivated to worship an incomprehensible God.

I can't get motivated to worship an incomprehensible God. Click To Tweet

[1] As just one example, see Rabbi Bradley Artson’s work on love, which draws from my definition (God of Becoming and Relationship [Nashville: Jewish Lights, 2016].

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