by Kyle A. Roberts

Is God’s love necessarily uncontrolling or might God coerce—because of love? That’s my question.Author

In Tom Oord’s provocative book, The Uncontrolling Love of God, he addresses the problem of evil by asking us to rethink the nature of God’s power. Evil exists and suffering occurs not because God allows it, and definitely not because God ordains it, but because God cannot prevent it.

God’s hands are tied, so to speak—not by a choice God made or an act of God’s will—but due to God’s intrinsic nature. God acts to overcome evil, but necessarily in tandem with creaturely agency. God must work alongside and with creaturely consent.

For Oord, God cannot coerce. Coercion is incompatible with God’s love and impossible for God’s behavior. God’s action in the world always requires creational consent. God does not force God’s way. Furthermore, our experience provides compelling evidence God is not always acting to prevent evil or ameliorate suffering. If God could coerce, why doesn’t he?

Oord’s strongest argument for God’s non-coercive love is simple observation. Just look around! If God’s love can be coercive, why doesn’t God coerce more often—or even at all?

I agree with Oord; love is fundamental to God’s nature and logically prior to any other divine attribute. However, I don’t see why love and coercion, occasional and well-intentioned, are theoretically incompatible. For example, parents of young children occasionally use coercion (even “unilateral control”) when protecting them from harm.

If my young daughter were about to be struck by an oncoming truck, I would desperately try to grab her and pull her out of its oncoming path. Technically, wouldn’t this be a coercive action? Wouldn’t it count as an example of unilateral control over another person? Oord might counter that surely my daughter, in that instance, would “consent” to my life-saving action. Neither her mind nor her body would resist my intervention—and she would try to make it easier, not more difficult, to save her.

Let’s imagine another scenario: I come across a friend about to attempt suicide by jumping off a bridge. I intervene to save him by pulling him off the ledge and tackling him to the ground. Wouldn’t this be a coercive act on my part? Wouldn’t it be something close to taking “unilateral control” over a situation?

Now to the point: Wouldn’t common sense suggest that such an action, pulling my desperate, suicidal friend off the bridge, counts as a loving action? It wouldn’t take long to come up with any number of scenarios that suggest love and coercion can fit quite happily together.

It might be that God doesn’t currently make use of loving coercion (else why so much evil and suffering?) but this doesn’t mean “loving coercion” is, theoretically at least, unbefitting of a relational, empathetic, and other-centered God.

In other words, why assume non-coercion is more loving and other-respecting than coercion—particularly when an intervening coercive action would result in a better outcome than preserving the free will of a person or the autonomy of an entity?

I don’t think the primacy of love must lead to a picture of a God who cannot intervene, who cannot override human will or act unilaterally to bring about a desired result. It would make sense that divine coercive action would be reserved for certain occasions or situations—not God’s modus operandi—otherwise God would be more of a cosmic dictator or puppet-master than a loving parent. Nonetheless, if parents occasionally coerce for the good of their children, why shouldn’t God coerce for the good of his?

My own view of God’s power is God being able and occasionally acting coercively within creation. The Christian hope of resurrection from the dead is one example. Oord maintains the miracle of bodily resurrection is consistent with God’s non-coercive love. He assumes one’s consciousness and spirit—and even the body itself—can “assent” to God’s action in resurrection. This is a fascinating position, but I’m not convinced by it. I see it as the prime example of God’s unilateral, coercive love.

Of course, the problem I face by affirming God’s ability to coerce is this: If God can and does lovingly coerce, why doesn’t God do it more often—even all the time? If God could bring an end to suffering and evil, why the delay?

I accept that, as a general rule, God does not act coercively over or within creation. God voluntarily limits coercive action so as to make room for free will and for relative creaturely autonomy—thus, the persistence of evil and suffering. Nonetheless, I remain hopeful that God’s transformative, coercive love will eventually hold sway over the world. Resistance would prove futile, falling away to grateful acceptance of God’s gracious, compelling, irresistible love. Personally, I would welcome that kind of coercion. Create in us new hearts, O Lord! (even if we don’t want you to).

For my theological money, the problem vexing more traditional theisms (like mine) is more palatable than the alternative. For Oord, if God cannot coerce, cannot ever exercise unilateral control over people and situations, then God cannot ensure his will is ultimately accomplished. What is God’s ultimate will? It is the salvation of all people and the reconciliation of creation to himself. If this happy ending depends upon the acceptance and agreement of all creaturely agents, it’s hard to imagine creation ever being healed, justice finally being attained, and evil being undone. It’s hard to imagine God getting what God wants. That scenario may turn out to be the real one. I can definitely imagine it, but I hope not.

Kyle Roberts (Ph.D.) is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and the Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Roberts has published essays on Kierkegaard and modern theology, including several essays in the series Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources (Ashgate / University of Copenhagen) and other collected volumes on various topics, including Pietism, Karl Barth, and Christian spirituality. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently co-authoring a theological commentary on the Gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans) and is writing a book about the Virgin Birth (Fortress Press, Theology for the People)

5 thoughts on “Why Can’t God’s Love Be Coercive?

  1. Kyle, you ask “If God’s love can be coercive, why doesn’t God coerce more often—or even at all?” Oord would say that from observation bad or evil things are not always being prevented. If God prevents some harmful things from happening and not others then God is arbitrary. That would mean that the Bible is false when it says God is no respecter of persons. One person survives cancer and another does not. One person dies in a freak accident and another does not. If God could coercively prevent bad things from happening and God loved everyone equally then God would prevent EVERY bad thing from happening. Since that is obviously not the case–bad, hurtful, and evil things happen all the time—then if God is allowing these things God’s love must be for some and not for others. That, according to Oord, would not be perfect love.

    There are also New Atheists who would say, “I would stop a child from being raped if they could; that’s the difference between your God and me.” When I hear that it makes me sad. I want to shout, “You misunderstand my God!” BUT, if you are right about God, Kyle, are the New Atheists right too?

    However, the issue you bring up about the consummation of all things is something Oord is currently working on for a possible new book on eschatology. But here’s a question: If God’s ultimate will “is the salvation of all people and the reconciliation of creation to himself” and that outcome is coerced in any way, is that authentic relationship?

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    • Thanks for your questions, Donna. Yes, my first question, which you quoted in your comment, was/is my summary of Oord’s problem with the notion of a God who coerces. I understand the problem he raises–which is a admittedly a difficult one for non-process, non-open theists like myself (if not the most difficult one). I also understand that, on the face of it, a conception of a God who cannot prevent an evil act from happening is fraught with less problems than a conception of a God who could prevent an evil act from occurring, but chooses not to. But what if the issue is not that “God can’t (prevent this or that evil), therefore God won’t (prevent this or that evil),” but that “God won’t (prevent this or that evil), therefore God can’t (prevent this or that evil)”? In other words, the limitation or restraint in God for preventing evils may not be metaphysical (as in Oord’s theology), but volitional. God chooses to limit him/herself, in order to allow for more creaturely freedom and relative autonomy within creation; this choice (perhaps made “from the foundation of the world”) then shapes God’s agency with respect to evils committed. So yes, the problem of apparent arbitrariness in God’s action remains. But I tend to think that God’s action/providence in history is primarily (mostly) non-interventionist–in the sense that God seldom or perhaps even very rarely intervenes to prevent evils–in this present age. But because the limitation in God is volitional and not metaphysical, we can retain a hope that God eventually will intervene in a big way, to overcome evil. I think this (Moltmannian) view is preferable to Oord’s process theism because, while there are more problems on “this side” (i.e. why doesn’t God prevent evil more often?) there are fewer problems on the “next side” (i.e. there is a theological ground for the eventual overcoming of all evils).

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      • Kyle, thanks for your reply! You said, “But because the limitation in God is volitional and not metaphysical, we can retain a hope that God eventually will intervene in a big way, to overcome evil. I think this (Moltmannian) view is preferable to Oord’s process theism because, while there are more problems on “this side” (i.e. why doesn’t God prevent evil more often?) there are fewer problems on the “next side” (i.e. there is a theological ground for the eventual overcoming of all evils).” This is one place I struggle with essential kenosis because it requires cooperation between God and humanity for the final consummation to take place. I don’t have THAT much confidence in humanity as a whole to cooperate with God and I would ask God a question: “How much cooperation is needed because I don’t see you ever getting 100%?” It might lead me into an Abrahamic dialogue! I imagine the view of Open Theism to be that God does not know that the final consummation will take place, but hopes it will. That’s one heck of a risk on God’s part! I am anxious to see how Dr. Oord wrestles with eschatology when he writes a book relating to it. Yet, on the other hand I also wonder, if the final consummation is even the only time God ever takes control would that be an abandonment of authentic relationship with creation?

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  2. So my question is if you had two parents, one who was very controlling and domineering while the other respected your autonomy and sought only to inform or influence your decisions, which parent would seem to love you most. And which would actually have more power in your life? Paradoxical as it seems, influence may actually have more love and power in our lives than does coercion or control. What Do You think?

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  3. Of course I would see the uncontrolling (!) parent as more loving than the domineering one. But I don’t see that as the choice we’re faced with. What if God is neither “very controlling and domineering” nor completely non-coerive, seeking “only to inform or influence our decisions”? What if God is somewhere in between those opposite poles? To keep with you analogy, would you say that a parent who never intervenes coercively is necessarily more loving than a parent who does so sporadically and occasionally, when there is good reason to do so (even if the child isn’t aware of the reasons for coercion or in agreement with them)?

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