by Kyle A. Roberts
Is God’s love necessarily uncontrolling or might God coerce—because of love? That’s my question.
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)