Tag Archives: process thought

Thomas Jay Oord's The Nature of Love: A Theology

Disclaimer: This is a review of Thomas Jay Oord’s The Nature of Love: A Theology. Full disclosure– I personally know and have met Professor Oord on a couple of occassions at the annual Wesleyan Theological Society. Also, as a part of a mutual agreement via Facebook whereby I received this work at no cost, I am reviewing this book as a Christian Open/Relational Theist. Hence, my review reflects my theological preference as such.

Part 1: Oord Addresses A Major Blindspot in Theoloogy:

Love is viewed as an afterthought for systematic theologians, Oord argues (page 1). Usually when professional theologians discuss love, its about issues relating to marriage and sexuality. Oord believes that love is THE central message of the Bible and his goal is to portray God as lovingly relational (i.e., not impersonal) against thinkers like Paul Tillich, as well as the necessity of love (contra Karl Barth) (pages 6-7). Oord defines love as “To act intentionally in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others to promote overall well being” (17). I especially appreciated the potential of “promoting overall well being” as well as Oord explanation of that portion as linking love to justice. “Justice and love are not enemies” (20). Part of being loving is working for the common good–a notion that could potentially be compatible with liberation theologies, especially ones that begin with reflectons on love (see Gustavo Gutierrez’ A Theology of Liberation). The empathy/sympathy portion of the definition means that in a loving relationship, the relational bond partly determines the existence of each party (22). Oord finishes his introductory chapter arguing that God calls all complex creatures to love according to the light given to them, and that God’s love is solely not self-sacrifice, ala feminist theology (26-28).

Part 2: Oord Problematizes Past Theologies of Love

Oord goes on to criticize Anders Nygren’s theology of love, for stressing agape love, one that makes human beings passive recipients of God’s love in Christ. Nygren avoids the Hebrew Bible in his arguments, and prefers the language of master and slave. Oord finds Saint Augustines view of love as primarily acquisitive desire, enjoyment for short. Oord says, “God is not entirely egoistic” (81). Lastly, Clark Pinnock, while Oord uses the Open Theology framework that Pinnock and others proposed a few decades ago, Oord says that any idea that we have to believe in Creation Ex Nihilo, that God created everything starting from nothing. Not only is this an unbiblical idea according to Oord, it is advancing a god who coerces contrary to the nature of love.

Part 3: Oord Makes A New Proposal for a Theology of Love

Oord argues that God must be Essentially Kenotic, that is necessarily self-limiting. This commitment is involuntary (125-127) since a voluntary kenotic God can still be blamed for the existence and prevalence of evil in the word (124). Oord proposes a new Open doctrine of love for Creation: creation ex creatione a natura, something he states is better than creation ex nihilo or creation ex deo. An essentially kenotic God is not “weak, uninvolved, or inactive” but at the same time, there is no guarantee of victory since there is no possibility of coercion (156). He concludes the text, “I think good theology must be be lived. Just as practice informs theology, good theology must be live in practice.”

Part 4: My Criticism from a Liberationist & Postcolonial Perspective

Oord states that his constructive proposal for a Creation Ex Creatione a Natura has “nothing about the view logically problematic.” For starters, while I enjoy works in constructive theology, there is such thing as having a text filled with too many neologisms. In my view, in light of the purpose of the text, which was to construct a theology centered on love, Oord hides behind obfuscation, creating a neogolistic word cloud, concealing clarity of thought. I think it was over the top, for example, when Oord randomly renames his brand of panentheism, “theocosmocentrism”(147). It was really quite unnecessary and there is not really an explanation for the preference, or any background. Oord’s Creation Ex Creatione a Natura reads more like Creation Continua, a combination of process thought in biblicist garb. There is a problem with the logic of Creation Continua, that it promotes politically essentialism and permanence. As Willie Jennings in The Christian Social Imagination noted, Creation Ex Nihilo affirms the fundamental instability of all things. “When view through this hermeneutical horizon, peoples exist without necessary permanence either of place or identity. This kind of anti-essentialist vision facilitates a different way of viewing human communities” (28).

My second problem with Oord is his excessive biblicism; the text itself is a rather odd blend of philosophical theology and citation of scripture with very little background or exegesis given (a lot like one of my favorite theologians, Jurgen Moltmann). Oord believes that the Bible’s metanarrative is centered on love, and that it is the Bible that is “the supreme love witness” (119). Does this not make the Scriptures more of a revelation of the divine over Jesus? Christ, creation, and the church are all put on equal pairing in terms of ethics, but the Bible is at the top of the hierarchy according to Oord’s logic. If you are going to do a book on philosophical theology, stay with philosophical theology. I guess I could say the same of most evangelical theology, which, outside of those like Stanley Grenz, theology becomes nothing more than the Bible Wars being played out all over again.

Lastly, I felt the tone of the book made it read like Oord did not want to disagree with anyone, and therefore caught in a controversy of some sort. It is an utter contradiction to argue on one page that God’s kenosis (self-emptying) is involuntary, and then a couple of pages later, claim that God is self-limiting. This is theological-double speak. You are either advancing process theology or you are not. Don’t try to appeal to divine voluntarism, but then criticize God following through on God’s promises as assurance God will be loving (page 145). Oord would neatly fit the description of a process theist (but alas, what person fits neatly into any category?) if it was not for his (correct) orthodox view of God as personal. This is where Oord could have aided his own argument, using Christian tradition to support his views. Yet, Tradition is the part of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral that Oord neglects (he gives us a healthy dose of Christian Experience, the Bible, and Christian Reason).

I hope my criticisms are helpful in Oord’s future texts, and that Oord’s view of relational theology reaches a wider audience and changes theological determinist hearts in U.S. American Evangelicalism.

Creation Made Free: A Theological Reflection

Creation Made Free is a book of edited conference papers and articles from a conference on Open Theology and Science.  Thank you to Dr. Thomas Oord for my free copy.

It is my understanding that the purpose of the conference and book is to engage in a dialogue between evangelical-leaning Open Theists and more “mainline” process theists.  I found Michael Lodahl’s “The (Brief) Openness Debate in Islamic Theology” to be quite informative and interesting.  Each of the articles in the first section of the book seemed to be written by those in favor of Process theology generally.  Process thinkers see themselves as challenging the way that Christians have traditionally viewed God’s activity in the world, and in particular, God’s power/sovereignty.  From my perspective, it seems that much of the constructive theology I have read seems to lean process theology as the solution to “genuine” evil in the world.  In order to adhere to process theology, one must submit to its definition of evil, notions of “natural” and “genuine” evil as well as agree with a definition of divine love that excludes justice.  This is why process theology does not have an eschatology, judgment, or a soteriology in the traditional orthodox Christian sense. The driving force behind process and open theologies is theodicy, the question of why God does not/chooses not/cannot PREVENT suffering.  The blind spot behind persons who take up this approach can be that there is a particular class bias, that persons who really have not lived a life of suffering imposed on them speculating on the question of why.  Rather than give an analysis of human agency and subjectivity, process thinkers in particular, choose rather to take away God’s agency, limiting God’s freedom, while at the same time avoiding conversations about God’s power, human power relations, divine justice, and justice between humanity.  This is because God’s justice is separated from God’s love, simply put.  As a postcolonial thinker, perhaps the most unhelpful part of process theology is process ethics.  Besides the fact that there is not a work on process ethics, the moral implications behind the idea that humanity’s unrestricted freedom without any word of judgment (limitations) on their agency is obviously that the status quo gets a pass.  Injustice  happens  because, well, God really can’t do anything about it. So, much like Calvinism, evil is God’s direct will by  default. Is it possible that process ethics, which leads to relativism, goes literally no where (no end, no telos, no determined goal) because process theology begins without a reflection on Old Testament texts outside the book of Genesis.  God’s giving of the law, the logos in Clement of Alexandria’s theology, on Mount Sinai, both presupposes human libertarian free will as well as a burden of responsibility.  God is free to hold human beings responsible because God has revealed what is right and wrong according to the divine perspective. Human beings do not know what evil is apart from a personal gracious God communicating with them.  Yes, open and process theologians are correct to a limited extent, God is “essentially” relational. However, relationships imply both a chosen form of agency , duties, and promises. God is just not Creator, as I read time and again in articles and books on process theology; God is a promise-making Creator ala Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope.

I may seem harsh towards process theism, but open theism is not without its problems.  From my perspective, Openness thinkers lack a consistent hermeneutic in regards to interpreting Scripture.  Besides the claim that they take “anthropomorphic texts so-called” more seriously than classical theists, there seemed to be a presupposition that their interpretation of a passage was correct without any justification (Valla! Abracadabra!); I found this problem especially in regards to Greg Boyd’s “Evolution as Cosmic Warfare.” It’s hard for me to understand Boyd’s pacifism and reconcile it with his warfare view of the creation narrative.  If war is at the beginning, war must be the nature of things.  There must be some understanding of an ontology of peace that was at the beginning of creation before this divine struggle happens. Thus, we find a second blind spot in Open Theism. There is a lack of engagement with philosophy (going back to the problem of the lack of a hermeneutic) outside of the natural science.

I would extend this review longer and have a conversation about the lack of cultural plurality endemic in this work, but I reserve the right to keep my peace.

Truth and Peace,

Rod

Notes from WTS 2010: Part Two

An Open Conversation with John B Cobb Jr. Posted with permission by Dr. Cobb.

A special thanks to Thomas Jay Oord for inviting me to ask a question and putting this discussion together.

Q: What do you think of Natural law? How do you conceive it? (in an Ethical context).

A: Not made se of natural law.  Quite possible. The word law, not happy use it.  Against absolutizing any human formulation. Can’t get past limits of human knowledge.

Q: Have political views/experiences changed your theology?

A:  Can’t give an exact answer.  Parents missionaries in Japan.  Attitudes about race changed.  Very conscious of race.  Well aware of social issues (general liberal political background).  Wanted originally to be a government agent in an international capacity.  Does not know how it shaped his theology.

Q: Follow up; What lead you to your embrace of process theology?

A: Growing up Wesleyan.  Learning the primacy of love over power.  Accidental.  Army experience was first experience with intellectuals.  In the process of studying Japanese, mostly New Yorkers, hurried to study Japanese to go another route than just the “bang bang” group.  Mostly Catholic and Jewish.  Went to Chicago to test his faith against what he called the modern world.  Hartsock helped Cobb, had reasons to go beyond modern questions about God.

Q: How do you think of eschatology?

A: Diverse Meanings and different patterns.  No guarantee that our decline will be reversed.  Cannot make use of apocalypse; a prophetic eschatology.

Q: How do you understand God initiating creation? Out of nothing?

A: Ex Nihilo and Power go hand in hand.  God does not unilaterally determine things.  Redefining nothing; not biblical.  Understandable, but stick with the biblical understanding.  God is always calling creatures to do what is best for them (Love). Daniel Day Williams! Wesleyan features of Whitehead.

Q: Doctrine of the trinity. Relativize it?  Does the Trinity help us?

A: Process theology emphasizes relations.

Q: What are the different ways process folks talk about Trinity?

A: The trinity should not be a litmus test.  Can be destructive to good theology.  Does not want to pass the litmus.  Threeness is the worship of mathematics.

(Scientists are badly socialized into materialism, etc.)

Neo-Darwinism has done great damage. Value of mechanic model falls short.

Q: What is your view of telos?

A: Biologists who do not believe in a telos are just disinterested in telos.  We behave purposefully.

MY Question: 2 parts— In patristic theology, God is transcendent and unknown in the work of persons such as Clement of Alexandria; what is your process view of transcendence? What is the good, common good, good action in process theology?

His Answer: I transcend him, he transcends me, in a finite sense even though we both participate mutually in the lives of each other.  The good: loving God in the neighbor, not a radical separation.   Both human and non-human.