A Better Love-the Evolving Shape of Postmodern Theologies

by Tim Burnette

The idea that theology is both imaginative and constructive has been contoured by the late Harvard Divinity School Professor Gordon Kaufman. In his book Theology for a Nuclear Age, Kaufman writes:

“All theology, in its attempt to analyze, criticize, and reconstruct the image/concept of God, is an expression of the continuing activity of the human imagination seeking to create a framework of interpretation which can provide overall orientation for human life.” (p. 26)

I tend to share his sentiments here, but with perhaps a more poststructuralist hermeneutical sensibility than he might have embraced when he first penned those wordsburnette-author in 1985. He proposed this methodology in response to the looming potentiality of a nuclear holocaust, and perhaps in so doing, hit upon a recurring apocalyptic theme that still has relevance in our 21st century context: the need for an imaginative, constructive theological response to the looming threats of our day, including things like the ecological crisis, global poverty, totalitarian political regimes and refugee crises, and the list goes on.

By imaginative, I mean that it is crucial for our theologies to risk the adventure of innovation in conversation with (or perhaps even in the face of) classical interpretations of various doctrines, in light of the enfolding narrative relationship that humanity has had with its great religious traditions. And by constructive, I mean, in embracing a posture that inhabits the radically deconstructive hermeneutical moves of the postmodern era, we must attempt to cataphize out of the inherent apophasis that has seemingly engulfed modern notions of truth. That is, we must give valuable and beauty-full interpretations of reality that correspond with what we continue to observe in disciplines like theoretical physics and work together with those disciplines to craft theologies that speak formative words of life and liberation to a planet in desperate need of a hope for today.

It seems to me that Tom Oord’s work in The Uncontrolling Love of God has succeeded insomuch as it has attempted to do just that: it has given us an imaginative construction of the doctrine of God’s providence through the lens of a non-coercive, kenotic form of love. When I first encountered Tom’s work, I was struck by his ability to build bridges when it came to thinking about God between camps, as he emphasized the primacy of love more than theologians who prioritized other characteristics like God’s holiness, creativity, power, mystery, or judgment. And, as he parsed out his understanding of love, what separated him from even other open and relational theologians was that he proposed that the reality of God’s love is inherently vulnerable as it is essentially kenotic. Whereas many theologians who hold to kenotic forms of theology emphasize God’s self-emptying nature as some kind of onto-mutation into a Christ-Form, Oord has suggested to us that this self-emptying is actually God’s nature.

This idea is both novel and relevant for Christians in the 21st century who are searching for ways to continue onward in the tradition that has been given to them, while not having to divorce themselves from their experience of the actual world they live in. Much of western (especially postmodern neo-reformed and other foundationalist forms of) theology since the Reformation has tended toward constructions of God that force adherents to profess things about God’s nature and activity that have become indefensible in a post WWII culture. The sufferings of many have left us with historically unique questions about the reality of God in the 21st century, and much of theology has moved from questions of existence/non-existence to other alternative discourses surrounding our God-constructions. True to this multiplicitous fashion, Oord promises that his proposition produces:

“A model of providence that includes randomness and regularity, free will and necessity, goodness and evil, and more. This model would emphasize that God loves all creation steadfastly because God’s nature is uncontrolling love.” (pp. 152-153)

Let us be clear here what he is preserving, where he is innovating, and why it matters. Tom has here in his proposal accomplished a few things important to the discipline of theology. Firstly, he has engaged the historical interpretations of the tradition in placing his view in conversation with both Scripture and historical theology. Secondly, he has engaged contemporary scientific views of the world including cosmological randomness, as well as current philosophical notions of creaturely freedom. As he has done this, he has embodied what every theologian should attempt after the end of modernity: transdisciplinarity. He has set his God-talk in a much more expansive setting by engaging other schools of thought, and this type of engagement has no doubt sharpened his thinking as he puts forth his constructive account of God.

He has also innovated by delving deeper into kenotic theological discourse by saying:

“God’s kenotic love logically precedes divine power in the divine nature. This logical priority qualifies how we should think God works in and with creation.” (pp. 162-163)

Whereas many theologies have emphasized certain big “O” qualities like omnipotence or omniscience, Tom has opted for omnibenevolence in light of God’s omnipresence. As is characteristic of most panentheistic theologies, the omnipresent portion of his understanding implies God is ‘down, in and through’ (immanent), not ‘up there and out there somewhere’ (interventional). It is this relationality that has, in Tom’s mind, gotten God off the hook for allowing things like evil, because God’s vulnerability is necessary for the possibility of a true loving relationship with the world. Where I might find my points of difference is beside the point…what we need are more theologians like Tom.

In an era where we are seeing the decline of Christianity in the West and more and more anti and pseudo-intellectual forms of the faith becoming combatant in the public sphere, we now more than ever need fresh, imaginative, constructive ways of translating God for the 21st century. Tom’s proposal of a love-centric, uncontrolling God can give those in search of a more vibrant theological imagination the option of not only a better love, but a transmutable theology attuned to an ever-evolving world.

Tim is a writer, process philosopher, theopoetic, artist, and contemplative working for a more Beauty-full future in the Disciples of Christ in Santa Barbara, CA. T: @timothytalk


  1. Thanks to Tom for the book and Tim for the essay. I am completely on board with the spirit of the book and the essay, but would like to hear a bit more about self-emptying. My questions come from years of Buddhist-Christian dialogue in which Buddhists would ask four probing questions that can make Tom’s work even more trandisciplinary. It’s one thing to be in dialogue with science, but still another to be in dialogue with a 2500 year old Buddhist tradition which highlights absolute interconnectedness. Here are the four question: (1) Does God have a “self” prior to the “emptying”? If the answer is “no” then they would ask further (2) “What is emptied in the act of self-emptying?” If the answer is “yes” they would ask (3) “Then is the emptying still essential to God?” I’m thinking Tom would answer “no,” which means that God and The Emptying are two sides of a single coin, thus meaning that the language of self-emptying can be a bit misleading. Why not simply say God is the Emptying. But even more deeply and importantly, they would ask (4) Does the process of emptying go both ways, such that in some sense the world “empties itself” into God, such that God is partly composed of the world itself, and thus a “many” as well as a “one.” The Buddhist view is that open and relational theologies may not go far enough with their ontological intuitions. On this matter it seems to me that Whitehead does in fact go far enough, since he proposes that God is indeed a many as well as a one; God’s own kenotic nature includes an act of receiving, and thus being formed by, the multiplicity of the world, moment by moment. Mutual self-emptying? It has Buddhist ring to it.


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