By Jason Newman
We all want to love and be loved. Most of all, we want to believe that God is Love.
But as I read through Thomas Jay Oord’s new book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, I found myself struggling. It took me a couple days to figure out why.
Oord’s book is engaging. It’s well-written, conversational, and non-confrontational. Although disagree with some of how he builds his case, I found the book thorough and logical.
Here’s how I’ve come to describe my struggle:
The intellectual side of me finds Oord’s “essential kenosis” theory appealing. Very appealing. But the emotional part of me struggles. This emotional side wants the injustice that has been done to me and my family rectified.
I am a student of history in general, church history in particular. As Oord argued that God could not stop the persecution under Diocletian, Pol Pot, or Nazis, I wanted to shout NO! This is not how I envision God!
The world is sometimes ugly. It is “red, tooth and claw,” to quote Tennyson. Bad things – horrific things – happen to good people.
So… I want a God who “gets ugly” sometimes. I want a God who responds to injustice with payback. A God would might be cruel or brutal toward those who act unjustly. I want a God who comes in and smashes everything and sets it right by some standard I find acceptable.
But Oord’s theory about the uncontrolling God of essential kenosis is not that God. If Oord is correct, I would have to fundamentally change the way I see God. And I’d have to change the way I see myself and others.
I once traveled to Mexico as part of a building team. Our general contractor spent almost an hour getting the first corner square. If he measured it once, he measured it 50 times! He not only checked it to be sure it was square, he also checked it against the distance from other buildings, the street, and powerlines. He measured everything!
Finally, I had enough. I walked up to him and asked why there was a holdup. We were all wasting valuable time, and I wanted to get working.
“The beginning is everything,” replied the general contractor.
This applies to how we think about God. If we think of power as logically first in God’s nature, our theology of God will flow from power. Viewing power fits nicely with the smashing and destruction I sometimes think the world needs.
Power-based views of God also allow me to hold onto my grudges. God will settle accounts like I want them settled, right? Power-based views of God also allow me to be self-condemning. I need to be dutifully punished for the evil I’ve done. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.
When we think love logically comes first in God, a different theology emerges. God-ordained destruction goes out the window. As do my grudges. And I realize that because God’s nature is first and foremost love, God must love me. As Oord puts it, “God cannot not love.”
And if God loves me, I have no excuse for not loving myself!
Part of what open theism and relational/process theology does is remind us that a change in theology means a change in our lives. Theology forms our worldviews. And I’ve found that essential kenosis theology has moved me quickly to an existential crisis.
How can I get past this crisis? First, I must recognize it for what it is. Essential kenosis tries to answer the biggest questions of life: Who is God? What is God like? What does that mean for us?
Answering the big question is rarely comfortable. Talking about different worldviews – especially varieties within the Christian worldview — can be emotionally charged. After all, we tie salvation to being able to answering the big questions. We think that if even one aspect of salvation is beyond our comprehension, the new idea or worldview must not be Christian.
I also struggle with essential kenosis, because it fits with the biblical text. Some theories start with defined pre-understandings, predefined suppositions about the Bible. Essential kenosis tries hard not to do that. It takes seriously the all-encompassing statement that “God is love.” In essential kenosis I find greater continuity and congruence with scripture than I find with many other systematic theologies or worldviews.
The jury is still out on which side will win in me: the intellectual or the emotional. Past experience tells me that my emotions will eventually come alongside my intellect.
It just takes time. And love.