I Can’t

Ican'tTom Oord’s most recent volume God Can’t extends his passion to articulate a solution to the problem of evil. I’m contemplating a review, but I hesitate because it would amount to repeating much of what I said previously regarding Tom’s project. To be sure, there are many places throughout this book where I can agree with what Tom says, i.e., that God is love, that God doesn’t (indeed cannot) unconditionally determine all things and hold the world responsible for its actions, that God has not orchestrated the rise of evil within Creation for some mysterious good, that God continually invites us to cooperate with him in achieving great good in the world, etc.

I also have no aversion to saying “God cannot….” The phrase appears explicitly in Scripture: God cannot lie, cannot deny himself, cannot be tempted (or tempt others), etc. So I’m happy to agree with such statements in all Tom’s works. I rejoice any time the loving nature of God is championed, any time suffering people are assured that evil is not a kind of good within God’s tool-box that he employs for mysterious reasons of his own, and for every challenge to cooperate with God in the pursuit of loving ends.

What’s disturbing in Tom’s work are implications of his metaphysics which do not surface explicitly, or easily for that matter, and which are not perceived by any of the reviewers I’ve read. It matters not whether Tom’s Process metaphysics can support his claim to be able consistently to affirm miracles, or to allow for the resurrection of Christ or those in Christ (to name a couple of issues Tom anticipated previously but which continue to arise). Resurrection is arguably unimaginable within his metaphysics, but never mind this. In the end it’s his eschatology that’s unacceptable and which is, one has to admit, not a recognizably Christian vision of the consummation of all things.

Begin with Tom’s interminable (temporally infinite) cyle, or series, of worlds, each created out of the previous, ours being the most recent, and nothing from any of which has survived into our own world, and evaluate Tom’s solution to the problem of evil from there. This is precisely the point of reference from which Tom’s theology is not reviewed. We are left with individual statements about God’s essence as love we can agree with, by all means. But where the project as a whole leaves us is an entirely different matter.

It’s not a matter of admitting I can’t “go there” with Tom on this or that marginal position, as one reviewer admitted. That misses the point entirely, for the eschatological failure is absolute, and it is inseparable from (and symptomatic of) a more fundamental ontological failure underneath things, for one cannot embrace the underlying metaphysics and decide to pass on the eschatological consequences, for in the end of all things is their beginning (argues David Hart), and only from the perspective of the end do we finally know what they are, who the God is who created them, what his intentions are for them, what God’s love for us means (which is what Tom’s project is all about). But if the end of things is their non-existence, or perhaps their becoming the raw material for the world-to-come, what are we to conclude about the enduring nature of God’s love for us? Only that so long as we endured, God loved us.

I do admire Tom’s passion and intentions. They’re pastoral throughout. The problem of evil is not just an academic exercise. For people whose ghastly conceptions of God wreak havoc with their faith, Tom’s been an unrelenting voice in the wilderness. But the execution of his theological project is, at its core, quite literally our execution, and that by divine love. As I earlier summarized:

The eschatological consequences are fatal. As I understand this cosmology, no discrete entity within any world survives permanently, or, at least, there’s no assurance that any individual member in a world will endure permanently into the future. That’s a significant consequence of Oord’s model that I think ought to be discussed much more, because it exacerbates the problem of evil.

If each world is created “out of” its previous world in a universal reorganization so radical as to constitute a “new world,” the relative question is What does endure from world to world? The cosmology becomes dicey and extremely troublesome at this point and is, I confess, difficult to describe as a “Christian” view of creation and consummation at all…

Why is it a problem? Because it would apply to Christ and his Church and so the entirety of the New Testament’s eschatological vision. Oord has made it clear when pressed on the eschatological question that he could not affirm with any confidence that the risen Christ or any other created being from our present world shall endure permanently. This is more than troubling. I’d be willing to give up a lot to purchase a final solution to the problem of evil, but at such a cost?

Tradition and orthodoxy aside, what are we getting in exchange for the price paid? The essential reason Oord develops this model is to ground our confidence that God will not cease loving us. It is one of Oord’s main complaints against God’s creating gratuitously “out of nothing” that God ends up being as free to stop loving us and begin hating us as he is free to create and not create. God’s love would be arbitrary, Oord maintains, were he to create gratuitously ex nihilo.

…It’s fair to ask: What happened to the infinite number of previous worlds in Oord’s series? They existed as expressions of God’s essential love too, just like ours does. Indeed, Oord argues we cannot consistently say “God is love” apart from positing this infinite [succession] of worlds. But where are those worlds now?

The whole infinite series is recognized, Oord holds, so that we can know for certain that God loves us and will never cease to love us. But nothing of any of the infinite number of worlds that preceded our own has endured. Just how safe and loved are we supposed to feel? What is it about an infinite series of worlds that makes Oord feel that God’s love for us secures our destiny if we believe we will be eventually recycled in the production of a new world order to arise from the reconfiguration of our own (ad infinitum)? An infinite number of worlds created out of love by God and no particular from a single one of them endures into our present world, and yet the mere fact that God co-creates this infinite series out of love and will continue to co-create a world out of ours to succeed our own, is supposed to ground our confidence in our own enduring enjoyment of his love?

Tom is convinced that creatio ex nihilo (“creation out of nothing”) prevents any final assurance of God’s love, because if God does not create by a necessity of nature (i.e., if he creates freely/gratuitously) he might up and stop loving us tomorrow. This doesn’t follow logically of course, but belief that it does is behind Tom’s rejection of creation ex nihilo. In its place he essentially proposes creatio ad nihilum (“creation unto nothing”), for nothing is the final destiny of every world in Tom’s process system, eternalizing rather than solving the problem of evil.

In any case, surely here a Christian motivation informed by the gospel must ask, Is divine incarnation not enough? Can God’s personal incarnation not tell us what God’s unchangeable opinion of us is, what his abiding intentions for us are? If the permanent-irrevocable union of divine and created being through the Incarnation is not enough to assure us of the unchanging, abiding nature of God’s love for what he creates, we will not find the answer in binding God dialectically to a series of creations extending infinitely into the past, none of the beloved particulars of which survived the recycling process. As one reader pointed out to me, Tom’s overall project reminded him of the 2017 movie Mother! starring Jennifer Lawrence, a kind of modern depiction of the cosmic mythology of Stoicism’s eternally repeating creation. You’ll have to judge for yourself.

In the end, however,

…Christianity has a different answer to the worry about what grounds our confidence in the unchanging nature of God’s love. One thing: the Incarnation, God’s own irrevocable assumption of human nature, the union of divine and created being in the God-Man. Humanity is now forever united to God in the victory of God’s own incarnate life and resurrection. That tells us what God thinks of what he creates. The Incarnation assures us that God will love us as unfailingly as he loves himself. Positing an eternal infinite series of worlds nothing in any one of which will endure forever cannot tell us that we shall never be separated from the love of God. Only God’s own incarnation can do that. Nothing shall ever separate us, St. Paul assures us, from the love of God “in Christ.” You have to finish the sentence. Once we have that, we don’t need an infinite multiplicity of worlds. We have God’s own infinite life personally present in the Incarnate One who embodies the permanence and so the assurance that God will never cease loving us.

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