by Rick Barr
The great American philosopher Josiah Royce died 100 years ago in September of 1916. Known both for his prolific academic output and his friendship with the much better known William James Royce was nearly forgotten a few decades ago but has made a significant comeback in recent years. He was not only an academic philosopher but also a public intellectual taking in the society in which he found himself and shaping constructive reflections for society at large.
The book Sources of Religious Insight (1912) was one of those reflections I am borrowing to provide a framework for my approach to understanding Thomas Oord’s challenging new book. Royce defined his understanding of insight as “knowledge that makes us aware of the unity of many facts in one whole, and that at the same time brings us into intimate personal contact with these facts and with the whole wherein they are united.” True insights need to be both comprehensive, reflecting a broad sense the world, and personal, providing personal orientation in that world.
The Uncontrolling Love of God is a book filled with Roycean insights. From the beginning pages one can feel the heartfelt reflections of a deeply committed follower of The Way who has been gifted with a critical mind and a passionate interest in truth. The following will highlight three of Oord’s insights that I see as most significant.
We live in a universe filled with both regularity and randomness. The interplay between these two enables the rich dynamism we experience in this world. In this, Oord is consistent with current scientific understanding. At the most fundamental level of physics, the past never completely determines the present or the direction of the future. At the same time, chaos does not reign supreme. Regularity is present at all levels.
The interplay between chance and necessity, randomness and regularity, freedom and determinism plays out in all we encounter. In this dynamic universe, there is beauty and value but also destruction and suffering. Both goodness and evil are real aspects of reality. Evil in particular presents a profound conundrum. For if God is able to prevent evil and fails to do so, God cannot be good. God is good, therefore, there must be a sense in which God’s sovereignty is limited. In light of this theological tension, Oord addresses the issues of God’s action in the world and challenges our understanding of divine sovereignty.
By answering this challenge Oord articulates his first significant insight. God, traditionally viewed as sovereign of the universe, does not control events. Additionally, God does not know how all events will turn out nor does God providentially determine what will happen. For Oord, God is understood as “open and relational” where creator and creation impact each other. The relationship is a two-way street with both sides having the freedom to act and respond.
The second insight presenting itself in Oord’s book is his fair, generous presentation of the options available for understanding divine providence. Oord lays out a continuum with one end representing the reformed tradition of an omnipotent and omniscient God who views all that is as subject to divine decree. At the other end, God is ultimately a mystery and God’s ways are not our ways so any knowledge in the finite realm is irrelevant. Oord’s position is a middle way between the extremes advocating an understanding of God as “essentially kenotic” reflecting God as uncontrolling love with and for creation.
In presenting each alternative, Oord highlights historical and current representatives of each by noting the salient points with a sympathetic tone. In doing so, he represents what Royce would call the “community of interpretation” or “the beloved community” where each interpreter is engages sympathetically with the other. Those with whom disagreement is held are represented as participants in the community of truth, seekers whose perspectives are appreciated and viewed as gifts. We are all fellow travelers and seekers. Recognizing this, even if more implicitly than explicitly, is Oord’s second insight.
Within this open/relational model of God’s providence, Oord presents his most significant insight. It is deceptively simple, what he terms essential kenosis. God is love, “self-giving, others-empowering love.” This is the foundational understanding of who and what God is. God does not choose to love. God does not subordinate love with any other attribute. Instead, all that God is flows from this fundamental eternal essence. As he states, “God must love”.
But here is the important twist. Any limitations are due to God’s underlying nature. It is not a voluntary limitation nor an external limitation from without. To rephrase, love does what love is. “God necessarily loves, but God freely chooses how to love each emerging moment.” Love is always appropriate to specific, unique contexts, “tailor-made for each creature.”
For Oord, creation is fundamentally relational with freedom and self-organization working together in an emerging complexity. It is through these relationships, creature to creature and also with the uncontrolling relationship with God, that the world evolves. For Royce, there is nothing that is that is not known by God. For Oord, there is nothing not touched by the uncontrolling love of God. In a sense, to be is to be known and to be loved. But that also means that suffering, any and all suffering, is God’s suffering. This is true for Royce and for Oord.
There are more insights, big and small within this very compact book. As someone who has been involved in the science and religion dialogue for over a decade, I have selected these three because they represent common features of the dialogue. Science and faith come together through deliberate acts of interpretation by individuals with different life experiences, different sets of values, and different skill sets. The dialogue reaches out to others with different perspectives; truth seekers whom Royce called the hidden church. Oord is part of that dialogue and his insights are substantial and appreciated.
Rick Barr is co-founder and acting Board Secretary of WesleyNexus, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to the dissemination of sound information about the dialogue between science and religion within the Wesleyan tradition. He received an MA degree from Wesley Theological Seminary in 2015 majoring in Systematic Theology with a concentration in science and religion. He has over thirty years of experience in information systems management currently acting as an IT Audit Manager for CEB Global, a best practice insight and technology company. He lives in Damascus, Maryland with his wife Jean and is a member of Damascus United Methodist Church.