Responding to Ryan Patrick McLaughlin (1/3)
When criticizing some of my ideas in The Death of Omnipotence and Birth of Amipotence, my friend John Sanders mentioned the work of another friend, Ryan Patrick McLaughlin. It had been years since Ryan and I had communicated, so I appreciate John alerting me to Ryan’s recent work.
Ryan kindly responded with an email of 6 worries/criticisms of my views. Most are variations of questions I’ve addressed in the new book or other writings. But because Ryan is not alone in raising them, I thought I’d respond to him publicly. Perhaps doing so can help others.
In the interest of space, I’m addressing two of Ryan’s worries here and others in future blogs…
Ryan: “Your position on love seems to maintain that love is, for the most part, uncontrolling. (I say “for the most part” because you acknowledge that some forms of bodily coercion may be loving, for example pulling a drowning child from a swimming pool). This is one reason why God’s uncontrolling love mandates that God seek to create a world that has freedom-securing properties, including responsive qualities such as will and intellect.”
“However, for all this emphasis on the importance of features like freedom for love, it is interesting to note that God is *not* free to love. If love requires freedom, in what way can we say that God truly loves, since God is coerced to love by God’s own nature? (You say that God is free to choose *how* to love, but that doesn’t honestly get us very far, since God would presumably always choose the most loving way to love, and if two ways were equally loving, God would have no reason to choose one over the other). This God seems more like an omnibenevolent computer program—necessarily following a set code but disembodied so limited in its execution to see that code through. Maybe the God of Asimov?”
Tom: Before getting to Ryan’s main point, let me clarify. I don’t think God ever controls, because God can’t control.
By “control,” I mean God never acts as a sufficient cause and cannot, by nature, do so. I also don’t think creatures ever control, however, in the sense of being sufficient causes. The bodily impact creatures do that an incorporeal God cannot do does not involve control in the sense of being a sufficient cause. (See my discussion of this in Questions and Answers for God Can’t and The Death of Omnipotence.)
Ryan’s main point, however, is that I say God must love. God is not free not to love. This is not an original claim to me; theologians like Jacob Arminius and John Wesley would say the same. Ryan notes I say God freely chooses how to love, so freedom is not missing in divine love. To my knowledge, this is a novel theologian idea. But I suspect Arminius and Wesley would like it.
Ryan worries that God choosing how to love isn’t real freedom. After all, says Ryan, God would always choose the most loving option. I’ve argued in various places, however, that open and relational theology describes a view of reality in which God can’t know with certainty which of the billions of options is most loving. After all, God can’t know the future; God can’t know the future free choices; God can’t know future random events.
It’s true that a necessarily loving God would not choose options likely to undermine well-being. And God can crunch probabilities like no other. But there’s a wide range of loving options that could promote well-being, depending on future free choices, randomness, etc. So God freely chooses among those loving options. (See my discussion of this in Questions and Answers for God Can’t and Pluriform Love.)
Ryan is right that the God whose nature is love does not have the same freedom as a God who may or may not love. And Ryan’s right that this will strike some people as odd. I suspect it strikes some this way for two reasons.
First, most theologians begin with omnipotence when thinking about God. And part of what it means to be omnipotent, many have said, is that God is free to do just about anything God wants to do. I strongly disagree with this, and I explain why in The Death of Omnipotence and Birth of Omnipotence.
Second, it will strike many as odd that God must love, because we humans have the freedom whether to love and how to love. While my definition of love applies to Creator and creatures, I claim only God’s nature is love. So only God must love. By the way, the idea God necessarily loves is a form of divine transcendence other theologies can’t provide. Those who criticize my view and similar ones for overemphasizing immanence nearly always miss this point.
When I ask people whether they think God would choose to stop loving us, almost everyone answers with, “No, it’s God’s nature to love us.” Most people expect God to love necessarily, even if they say God could freely choose not to love. They’re inconsistent. On this issue, check out this blog essay: “Why You Actually Believe God Must Love Us (even though you may say otherwise)”
Ryan: “We would all be better off if God’s love were *not* uncontrolling love. You argue that *if* God had the power to stop genuine evil, then God *would* stop genuine evil. That means that, all other things being equal, a God who had a deep love—but not an *uncontrolling* love—or a God who was willing to coercively co-opt some random material for a body (or a God willing to coercively create a separate body for Godself so God could engage in loving bodily coercion) would be better for the world than the God of uncontrolling love, because that God would prevent genuine evil. And by definition, the absence of genuine evil is better for the world.”
“In a real sense, then, we shouldn’t *celebrate* that God’s nature is uncontrolling love. We should *lament* it. It’s a great tragedy because it means we’re forced into a world that God was forced to create (by God’s nature) that inevitably leads to tragedies like cancer. And the kicker is that it seems quite unreasonable to maintain that God will be able to redeem the infinite victims of this world through a decisive victory over evil. This, I think, is an unacknowledged cost of your theology. You present God’s uncontrolling nature as something to be celebrated—good news—when it seems to me as quite the opposite to the many victims of that nature.”
Tom: Ryan raises several issues here, but I think two are primary. They also connect to other points I’ll address in future blogs.
Should we celebrate God’s love as uncontrolling? Yes, we should. Those who endure harm and evil often think God causes or allows them. They’re angry at God. But when they read my work and realize God always loves and never controls, they celebrate. Many are overjoyed that God didn’t cause or allow their suffering. This is good news and worth celebrating!
It helps to distinguish between two issues. One is the plausibility of one model compared to others. The other issue is whether we should celebrate and praise God for doing what God does by necessity.
On the first issue, many readers join me in celebrating the God envisioned by this theological model. To our way of thinking, it better accounts for reality and suffering. We have reasons to celebrate God’s nature as uncontrolling love. Praise God!
The second issue pertains to whether we should celebrate the God who does some activities by necessity. For instance, if God necessarily exists, does it make sense to say, “Thank you, God, for existing?” If God is necessarily present in all creation, does it make sense to celebrate and say, “Thank you, God, for being present with us?”
Creatures don’t have attributes like necessary existence, necessary presence, or necessary love. So when we celebrate the birth of a baby, the presence of friends, or the love of others, we’re celebrating contingent choices and factors. Things could have been otherwise.
A God who necessarily exists, is necessarily present, and necessarily loves doesn’t choose to do those activities. This God can’t do otherwise. For my part, I thank, praise, and celebrate this God. But I understand why doing so might feel strange to Ryan. It doesn’t fit the contingent choices among creatures we often celebrate.
The second worry Ryan raises has to do with eschatology. He says my view makes it “quite unreasonable to maintain that God will be able to redeem the infinite victims of this world through a decisive victory over evil.” I’ll bypass the claim about “infinite victims” (which I think is hyperbole) and address what I think is Ryan’s main point: Can a God of uncontrolling love redeem and win in the end?
Yes. The God I affirm, whose love is always uncontrolling, can win. But this God does so through persuasive love, not coercive control. I call my view “relentless love.” It says God never gives up inviting all to redemption in love, in this life and the next, and when creatures respond to these invitations, love wins.
Ryan is right that my view doesn’t have the eschatological guarantee that can only come through omnipotent control. An omnipotent God can force his own way, contrary to what 1 Corinthians says about love never forcing its own way. But my relentless love view has guarantees that omnipotent control cannot provide, such as the fact that God never gives up persuasively calling everyone. It’s guaranteed that God never forces anyone to heaven or condemns anyone to hell. And the relentless God never gives up. Ever!
My view also answers the question of why a God who can omnipotently guarantee an ultimate win does not omnipotently stop evil now. I see this as a huge advantage over the model that portrays God as omnipotent. It’s something I’ve addressed in several books and essays, but see Questions and Answers for God Can’t and “Relentless Love and the Afterlife.”