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.

3 thoughts on “Thomas Jay Oord's The Nature of Love: A Theology

  1. david

    Thanks for the compelling review. I found it to be quite helpful.

    1) you state:

    “If you are going to do a book on philosophical theology, stay with philosophical theology.”

    I don’t believe this is a very fair statement to make and is a rather hasty generalization. I would say if you are going to engage with S/scripture to be careful when doing so and do deep sustained engagements with S/scripture drawing on texts in a sustained fashion. Two examples I can think off off hand that engage scripture well while also doing “philosophical theology” are Catherine Keller Faces of the Deep and Monica A. Coleman Making A Way out of No Way.

    2) I have a question for you and/or TJ Oord: I am totally willing to agree that love should be the center piece of theology and that love is one of the primary things that moves God. Still the question for me is what constitutes loving? who is loved? what does it mean to be loved? In each loving community there are insiders and outsiders, those who are loved more and loved less? What do we do with the un-loved the marginalized and the excluded?

    Reply
  2. Thomas Jay Oord

    David,

    Thanks for your response. Your question is a tough one. I engage it in chapter two of my book, Defining Love, which is a kind of companion to this book. Defining Love’s first two chapters are primarily philosophical, it’s middle three are scientific, and its final chapter is theological.

    I hope you find it helpful!

    Tom

    Reply
  3. Pingback: The Power Of Love part 1: James Cone’s Relational Theology | MennoNerds

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