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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Has Tom Oord solved the problem of evil?—Part 2

infinite

A quick thank you to friends and family who have supported Anita and me in our recent move from Minnesota to California. I’m settling into a new job which promises to be a wonderful experience as general manager for an Arabic language non-prof dedicated to translating and publishing the Scriptures in Arabic. More on that latter perhaps.

Moving to California hasn’t left me time for blogging, but I’d like to get back in the saddle. To begin with I’m here offering Part 2 of my reflections on Tom Oord (see Part 1). I also have simmering some thoughts on a couple of Greg Boyd’s latest posts (Cross Shaped Transcendence and The Cross and the Trinity) that address topics of special interest to me.

For now, let’s return to Tom Oord’s work on God’s essential kenosis. I see John Sanders has posted a second reply to Oord in their exchange over whether the way Oord unpacks this essential kenosis solves the problems Oord claims it does or whether it creates other insurmountable problems. (See John’s first post here and Oord’s reply here).

I’d like to approach an aspect of Oord’s views that perhaps isn’t discussed much. Those unfamiliar with Process theology might find this post a bit tedious. I apologize. It’s important, however, because it brings us round to the fundamental importance of the question of the necessity vs the contingency of God’s creating which is bound up in the traditional doctrine of creation from nothing (the rejection of which is a cornerstone of Oord’s project). I shared these thoughts in email conversations and other online venues, but I’m dusting them off here in light of Sanders and Oord’s conversations.

Those familiar with Tom Oord will know he qualifies the standard Process belief that God is essentially related to the world. Supposing there to be a single world as such presents problems which Oord wishes to avoid by holding that God eternally creates world after world after world, an infinite series of contingent creations, each of which is created out of the previous. God alone, Oord agrees, is that eternal, necessary self-sufficient reality unlike every individual world in the infinite series of worlds.

What I’d wish to show here is that in the end there’s no real departure from or advantage over Process here because given Oord’s metaphysics, his infinite series of worlds reduces to a single world order in process and circles Oord round to the standard Process view he wishes to avoid on this point, and that overall Oord’s view is fatal to Christian faith as regards Christianity’s claims regarding any ‘final’ closure and consummation to God’s creative work.

But first, why think his worlds all collapse into a single world?

First, keep in mind Oord’s process (or quasi-process, whatever is more accurate) metaphysics on this point: God and the world, essentially related and in process, creatively bring about novel states in a mutual process of becoming. God supplies “initial aims” to created entities for their becoming, and the world creatively synthesizes past, objectified data in freely determining what it becomes next. Whatever the world (any world) becomes is always a creative achievement between God and the world, given antecedent data and divine subjective aims informing the present. Keep that in mind.

Second, then, consider Oord’s infinite series of worlds, each created out of the previous. Each world in the series is supposed to be sufficiently distinct from preceding worlds such that the entire series doesn’t constitute a single world or world order. But there’s nothing in Oord’s metaphysics to secure this distinction between worlds and stop it from collapsing into a single world order in process. Some time ago I suggested to Oord that if each world is made out of the previous world, as he claims, then given his metaphysics (i.e., the process doctrine of actual occasions being the concrescence of antecedent data that form new occasions, and so forth), his infinite series must constitute a single world order because each world is ontologically continuous with the previous world. There must be, I said, some abiding “material substrate” that is continuous throughout the series. Oord said this wasn’t the case. The example he gave was the distinction between the material which is my body today and the material which made up my body ten years ago. They’re not the same material. So there’s no material substrate throughout.

Quite right. So let me concede that there’s no “material” substrate throughout Oord’s infinite series and make my point in different terms. I grant that my body today isn’t the “same material” as my body ten years ago. But this example establishes my essential point that Oord’s infinite series of worlds (each arising out of the previous) constitutes a single, indivisible world-process. What constitutes the collapse of the series into a single world is simply the continuity of the worlds (and the transitions between them) defined and governed by Oord’s (Process) metaphysics.

How so? Given that governing metaphysics (joint God-World creative synthesis as an unending process of becoming), none of Oord’s worlds is any more distinct from its previous world than one actual occasion is from its antecedent actual occasions within a single world. The metaphysics…

…forbids the kind of distinction between his successive worlds that he needs in order for the series to advance his project beyond standard Process cosmologies at this point. Oord’s worlds are just consecutive, novel moments within a single process of becoming governed by uniform laws that define and guide that process.

turtlesWe can divide this eternal process of becoming by assigning different names (world-a, world-b, world-c) to divisions we have reason to impose upon the process, but there’s nothing new metaphysically speaking in this. We’re not naming a distinction between worlds that isn’t just convertible with the distinction between actual occasions within any one world. Oord’s infinite multiplicity of worlds, each created out of the previous and all governed by the abiding laws of (quasi-)Process metaphysics, reduces to a single world, i.e., a single process of becoming that defines the series throughout.

Third, we could suppose that each of Oord’s distinct worlds in the series begins as a novel reconfiguration of all non-divine reality on a grand universal scale. But it would still the case that this change, as universal and inclusive as it would be, follows the same Process laws of becoming (i.e., actual occasions as the concrescence of antecedent data creatively synthesized). Such grand reconfigurations would not be sufficiently distinct from previous reconfigurations within a single process of becoming. The entirety of a world’s process of becoming would swell in scope and consequence as a kind of universal, epochal-social event, but metaphysically speaking we still have a single, seamless continuum of process in which antecedent (past) data and divine subjective aims inform creative synthesis (present) and the concrescence of new occasions. “New” in Oord’s “new worlds” cannot mean anything essentially different than “new” understood on the level of a single new occasion within any one world. So we’re talking about a single world in the end.

God only creates (or rather co-creates) a new world via Process through antecedent data provided by previous occasions and in cooperation with the creative dispositions of existing entities. Whatever comes to be is the creative achievement of both God and whatever state of process God is in relation with. This holds for every moment within so-called distinct worlds as well as the becoming that defines each world’s emergence “out of” its previous world as Oord maintains. So there’s no way any “new world” in Oord’s model is uniquely distinct from its previous world any more than one actual occasion is distinct from its own antecedent occasion in any single world of the series. There might be other arguments Oord can make that set his view apart from Process in this regard, but positing an infinite series of worlds doesn’t achieve it.

Lastly, 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. Will we endure forever subjectively in relationship to God as this world, redeemed and consummated? Does Oord hold to a doctrine of objective immortality – the belief that we do not permanently endure subjectively-personally but only persist as objectified in the divine mind? I’m unsure what Oord’s specific eschatology is on this crucial question, and I’d be happy to understand it better, but the problem is inherent in his project as we can here see.

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.

I’ll leave for another post the logical question of whether that last conclusion follows (it doesn’t) and simply ask whether Oord’s model on its own terms secures the confidence he seeks. 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 multiplicity 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? 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? The math doesn’t work.

nativity

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.

I could close with St. Paul, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, or any of the Cappadocians, but let me end with open theist (irony of ironies) Clark Pinnock:

By his resurrection, Christ pre-actualized the consummation of the world. Its transformation is anticipated, and all things are sure to be made new. The Risen One is the vanguard and embodiment of the new order. Jesus prefigures what will be true for us also in the new creation. It is the seminal event, the seed from which the new reality grows.

The Lord’s human body was not discarded but shared in resurrection, pointing to the salvation of the whole person…The incarnation is an event within history pointing to the goal and moving humanity toward union with God. In Christ, the world has entered its final phase, and its redemption in that sense is clear. In Karl Rahner’s words, the incarnation and resurrection enacted “the irreversible beginning of the coming of God as the absolute future of the world.” As the first-fruits of the new humanity, Jesus says, “Because I live, you also will live” (JN 14:19). (Flame of Love)

Has Tom Oord solved the problem of evil?—Part 1

1o-holbein-christ

Somewhere along the way I started calling Tom Oord “TJ” to distinguish him from myself in online discussions we were having. So I’ll just stick with that for now. I’ve had it in mind to post why – given TJ’s own Process (or quasi-Process) metaphysics – his preference for God being, necessarily, the creator of an infinite series of worlds, each created out of the previous, rather than a single world, in fact reduces to a single world and that any advantages TJ might think his series of worlds has over a single world disappear upon closer examination, and that in terms of his own assumptions.

But that post will have to wait. Instead, I’d like here to add a reflection or two to the ongoing conversation between Tom Oord and John Sanders. Recently, Sanders posted a response to Oord’s overall project, and today Oord published a response. The point I’d like to add is simple: Given the constraints of the Process metaphysics at work in TJ’s work, on his own terms he’s far from having solved the problem of evil. If you’re unfamiliar with Oord’s work, or Process theism in general, he reviews the essentials of his approach in his response to Sanders.

I like initially to see if a person’s proposal is consistent with its own fundamental assumptions. And without introducing my own beliefs about God or evil or the world into the mix, it seems to me that Oord’s proposal is unimaginable on its own terms. Even if TJ is right that God doesn’t exhaustively control/coerce any created entity (be it the simplest “actual occasion” or a complex “society of occasions” – and, for the record, such less-than-exhaustive determination of things is a claim I tend to agree with in an important sense), one can still make a case that the problem of evil remains. If God can exercise a level of influence great enough (near total but not exhaustive – and TJ grants that divine influence may be very great indeed) to get a miracle as historically unique as the resurrection of a dead person, and achieve it on the predicted day of his choosing, then we’re talking about a kind of relating (even if not ‘exhaustively determining’) that essentially reintroduces the problem of evil – even for Oord. A divine way of relating to the world capable of achieving physical resurrection would, arguably, be able to prevent a great deal more of the evil that occurs in the world that it does, even if it wouldn’t reasonably prevent every evil.

Let’s grant TJ the kind of non-exhaustive coercion/influence that is a chief claim of his project. Even so, if God can effectively relate (kenotically, i.e., less than exhaustively determinative) to dead cells and raise them on cue, it’s easy to see how the problem of evil essentially remains. Why isn’t a God whose way of relating to the world includes achieving resurrection more successful generally? True, how much God is able to achieve in any given circumstance depends upon the level of cooperation from created entities. But this doesn’t get us much because it doesn’t prevent us from concluding in general that a world in which God can resurrect the dead would certainly be vastly better than ours is.

41ogx8m9aul-_sy344_bo1204203200_TJ supposes that Jesus’ spirit/soul cooperated with God in re-animating the cells of Jesus’ dead body. I’m not sure what sort of reality Oord supposes this ‘spirit’ to be. He describes it a bit. But it’s certainly not convertible with a conscious, functioning brain in the dead Jesus. Some other sort of volitional influence, distinguishable from a functioning brain, seems to be in view. But positing a level of influence on the part of Jesus’ spirit doesn’t solve the problem in TJ’s terms because the “dead cells” of Jesus’ body (apart from all other influences – divine or those attributable to Jesus’ own spirit) must contribute their own freely self-determined surrender to the possibility of resurrection. Is that imaginable within Process metaphysics broadly construed? I think not.

Consider the Process metaphysics at work. All “actual occasions” retain some inviolable measure of self-determining/self-organizational capacity. Outcomes are always cooperatively achieved in light of God’s “subjective aims” for entities and the free exercise of the creative capacities of those entities. That is, actual occasions are free to self-determine within a scope of possibilities provided by God’s subjective aim for that entity’s ideal state of becoming. So far so good. However, those subjective aims are also relative to that entity’s present state. Salt can dissolve in water. Water can freeze in sufficient cold. Salt isn’t going to produce a rose bush as its next creative step of becoming. Why not? Because the complexity of a rose bush lies outside the scope of the possibilities that define salt. Will Process metaphysics allow us to suppose that “dead cells” have it within their natural capacities as societies of actual occasions (i.e., “as dead cells”) to reanimate themselves into a conscious state? Supposing they do involves a leap of faith that resurrects the problem of evil along with Jesus.

Why do I say this? Because in Process terms, a dead body is a complex system of actual occasions incapable of the kind of free cooperation Oord needs them to be in order for those dead cells to play their Process part in becoming a conscious subject. I don’t confess to being an expert in Process metaphysics (Hasker, Rice, Greg Boyd, and others can confirm my point), but Hartshorne, I believe, showed that some outcomes (say, conscious, self-aware, rational subjects) require higher forms of consciousness to begin with. The higher, more beautiful, more complex events we call conscious subjectivity and aesthetic perception, require sufficient complexity as their immediately antecedent data. No mysterious quantum leaps allowed! A rock cannot perform calculus. Why not? Because its present reality “as a rock” isn’t sufficiently complex enough a state of awareness to begin with. A non-conscious, non-rational, society of occasions (say, a dead body) does not enjoy the same scope of possibilities as does a conscious, rational, subjectivity. Oord is asking Process metaphysics to support the claim that dead cells in themselves are sufficiently complex a state as to be capable of cooperating with God’s subjective aim for its reanimation.

This seems too much to ask of Process metaphysics. Per Process, the “divine subjective aims” offer possibilities that lie within the capacities of given actualities (all other divine contributions aside). That’s hardly imaginable in the case of dead cells, even if we view those cells in Process terms as a society of actual occasions which on a fundamental quantum level of existence still contribute something to their possibilities of becoming in the next nanosecond. The metaphysics doesn’t get you the kind of event we have in Jesus rising from the dead.

I appreciate that it may solve the problem of evil for Oord or for those disposed to Process cosmologies who are already theists convinced on other grounds that God is the Good, the Beautiful, the True. But it seems incredible to others. In particular, it seems incredible to imagine an that atheist who thought seriously about Oord’s proposal, who appreciated the problem of evil in its most acute forms, and who understood the inherent limitations of the Process metaphysics at work in Oord’s project (whatever its advantages), would feel the problem of evil was “solved” by the supposed good news that God raised Jesus’ dead body miraculously but couldn’t stop (to go with an example Oord frames his model around) a stray rock from striking a woman’s head and killing her because the “cells” of Jesus’ dead body cooperated with God’s subjective aims for them while the “molecules” of the rock didn’t cooperate with God’s subjective aims for them. This is where Sanders is spot on in his criticism of Oord – to the extent Oord succeeds at articulating a view of God’s relationship to the world that has room for “miracles,” it fails to solve the problem of evil.