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Book Review: God Can’t by Thomas Jay Oord

GOD CAN’T

If God is love, then suffering and evil aren’t God’s fault.  Love attracts but doesn’t force, doesn’t compel.  If God is love, then God is omnipresent, but is neither omnipotent nor omniscient.  Because, if God is love, we have choices – and that makes our behavior unpredictable.  We might follow the light of divine love and do right, or we might ignore it and do wrong.

Thomas Jay Oord, professor at the new online Northwind Theological Seminary, expands on this view of the divine in GOD CAN’T:  How to Believe in God and Love After Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils (SacraSage, 2019).  He is steeped in process theology, having received his PhD from Claremont School of Theology.  In this book, Tom Oord makes the essentials of process thought accessible to lay readers who wrestle with the failure of evangelical theology to make sense of theodicy, otherwise known as the problem of evil: how can a loving God allow terrible suffering to exist?    

Oord used to teach at a Nazarene seminary in Idaho, so he is fluent in “evangelicalese”, as is evident in his writing.  His book provides a sturdy footbridge for evangelicals to make the crossing, step by careful step, into progressive Christian theology.  The title of the book may be jarring to a conservative Christian, but if she or he screws up the fortitude to open it, whether out of curiosity or out of desperation, inside will appear reassurance that the God who can’t prevent evil is still the God of the Christian faith.  Even the layout of the book is redolent of evangelical culture: there are cursive inserts in the text with “teasers” about that section’s content, and there are study questions at the end of each chapter. 

Tom Oord gets it that the problem of evil is the tipping point for a lot of people in their relationship with Christianity.  Most pastors blow bad theological sunshine at good church members when bad things happen to them.  And lots of folks head for the exits as a result.  Oord systematically debunks each of the common religious nostrums used to sweep away the problem of evil, and the defunct concepts of God that go with them.  Along the way he paints a fresh picture of the divine.  God works alongside us toward the good.  God joins us in making the best out of bad situations.  God feels our pain and stands with us in doing our best to alleviate it.  God needs us to work God’s will of love in the world.  There are things God can’t do, but not because God chose not to do them.  While God is limitless, God’s nature – and the nature of Nature itself – allow for all entities in the universe to make choices that cannot be predicted, and that may result in tragic consequences.  Oord’s portrait of God reflects closely the concept of the divine in Whiteheadian process theology, without burdening the reader with its arcana.

Tom Oord has walked where he invites his readers to follow:  “God was once the source of my greatest fears… I considered myself a sinner in the hands of an angry God… I no longer fear God.  It took awhile for me to arrive where I am today… The key to overcoming my fear was realizing God always loves me.  God’s perfect love cast out my fear of God!” 

This is a very useful book – one I’d recommend to an evangelical Christian struggling with the inherent absurdities of that interpretation of the faith.  My only critique of it is that he uses the language of God as a supernatural personality without the content that goes with it.  So the reader might well be left with a God who is a hollow shell of what the reader used to think of as the divine.  While Oord explicitly disavows the “clockwork God” of deism – standing at and remove from the world and letting it run – that might be the kind of God that the reader is left with.  The cure for traditional supernatural theism is contemplative practice rooted in monastic Christianity, leading us into the palpable experience of the God who is love.

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Rev. Jim Burklo is the Senior Associate Dean of Religious and Spiritual Life at the University of Southern California.  An ordained pastor in the United Church of Christ, he is the author of seven published books on progressive Christianity, his latest book is Tenderly Calling: An Invitation to the Way of Jesus (St Johann Press, 2021).  His weekly blog, “Musings”, has a global readership.  He serves on the board of ProgressiveChristiansUniting.org and is an honorary advisor and frequent content contributor for ProgressiveChristianity.org. 

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