Fear and Pity: A Review of The Nature of Love: A Theology for SpeakEasy Bloggers

The Nature of Love: A Theology
By Thomas Jay Oord.

195 pp. $25.99 (hardcover)

Perhaps I’m odd for thinking of Aristotle’s Poetics after I’ve read a book on Christian theology, but there it is.  By the time I got to the end of Thomas Oord’s latest offering all I could think about was Aristotle’s classic pairing of fear and pity as the proper results of a good tragedy.  Such words struck me here not because, as in Aristotle, they go together but because, in Oord, one seems to supplant another.  Oord sets out with what I take to be the best of intentions, namely to give comfort to those who live in fear of what seems, in certain systems of theology, to be a capricious god, damning five souls and saving one without any particular reason to do either.  As a counter-assertion to this tradition, Oord proposes to reconceive theology not with God’s sovereignty and freedom at its core but with divine love as the starting point.  At the outset of this review, I grant that Oord’s book addresses a genuine intellectual problem within theology, and his account of the logical conclusions of such theology seem to be accurate.

Unfortunately, in trying to make his case that God is not to be feared airtight, Oord ventures into another sort of difficulty, namely writing a theology that leaves God to be pitied.  Oord’s god, by the end of the book, seems unable really to do much of anything other than to ask nicely if the big, powerful human beings can help out a bit.  By the end of the book, in other words, I can already hear Nietzsche’s madman calling in the town square.  But first, the course of the book.

Take Etymology All the Way

Oord is right on target when he begins his discussion with a note that the New Testament Greek word agape does not include all of the concepts that the English word “love” names.  In fact agape, though it does appear in a few places in Homeric and Classical texts, takes on its real cultural force in the text of the New Testament, and it largely supplants Plato’s dikaiosyne and Cicero’s officiis as the organizing principle for the Christian community.  Unfortunately, Oord’s book treats the English word “love” itself as a sort of ahistorical sign, ignoring its own roots in the glory-language of Old English texts and instead placing on it a definition that seems to come from utilitarian discourse rather than heroic poetry.  His definition is as follows:

To love is to act intentionally, in sympathetic/empathetic response to God and others, to promote overall well-being. (17)

Oord’s text does provide a little bit of New Testaement exegesis and a little less Old Testament exegesis to demonstrate that his definition works in some passages, but there’s little sense in this book of the historical complexity that surrounds theological vocabularies: instead, agape and eros and philia and hesed and ahab and caritas all just point back to love-according-to-Oord.

More significant than the historical reductionism, however, is the assumptions that the definition seems to make about power and knowledge.  Oord’s repeated emphasis on “overall well-being” seems to assume a sort of omniscience with regards to the consequences of act, which would be fine for divine love, but he insists throughout that human beings are to love one another and even to love God.  Thus human beings, if Oord’s definition holds, are capable of improving the overall well-being of God, which is the first move that rather diminishes the infinite Trinitarian theos that Gregory of Nyssa has given the Christian tradition, preferring instead a being-among-beings who needs human help lest he remain overall worse off.

Creation as Infinite Regress

That sense of the limited god plays out most clearly in Oord’s revision of classical theologies of creation.  Opposing creatio ex nihilo by calling it a “Gnostic-originated doctrine” (80) at first, Oord does, to his credit, come back later and revise that claim, noting that the particular words that Christians have used to talk about creation took their present form in disputes against Gnostics (102).  That said, Oord still denies that creatio ex nihilo is ultimately adequate to the Biblical text, preferring Jon Levenson’s reading of Genesis 1 and other creation-texts as a divine shaping of primordial matter rather than speaking essence into existence (103).

And that’s where Oord’s theology of creation gets weird.

I know that Levenson’s modern-Jewish critique of classical Christian theology is a popular one among Old Testament scholars, but by and large, those scholars are very forthright about the fact that such a move marks a return to the combat-myth cosmologies of the ancient Babylonians and Greeks, among others.  Oord does briefly mention the combat-myth (103), but then he makes the strange move of saying that a narrative in which God beats down primordial chaos-monsters is somehow less coercive than creatio ex nihilo and thus more adequate to a theology that makes love the center of the project.  How a grand fight stands as less violent than a spoken word eludes me, and Oord does not dwell on the point long enough here (he does offer a footnote to another of his books, which I have not read) to explain the seeming disconnect.  By the end of his section dedicated to creation, Oord asserts (in a move he names as “non-dualistic”) towards an assertion that all things are in fact created (108-109, a swerve back towards creatio ex nihilo?), but in the book’s closing chapter, the theology gets even weirder.

In opposition to creatio ex nihilo, Oord’s final chapter proposes a new formulation, the creatio ex creatione a natura amoris, or creation out of what’s already created, according to the nature of love (134).  Again, on its surface, this could stand as a move to reconcile Levenson’s scholarship on Ancient Near Eastern creation texts on one hand and classical Christian theology on the other–in fact, this has helped me to think about the relationship between Biblical and systematic theology perhaps relating as primordial systematic assertion (God has created all that is or has been) with careful textual exegesis (God seems to separate and form things, rather than initiate the existence of matter in Genesis 1).  But Oord does not stop there–instead, although he denies that reality is dualistic, with God and matter being coeternal, he also denies that there is any divine nature prior to the title Creator, that there is no Trinitarian community of divine persons except as also in relationship with matter.  I’ll grant that I, a poor and simple English teacher, might just be missing out on the nuance of Oord’s position, but as I read it, Oord’s unflinching denial of creatio ex nihilo runs him into the dilemma of an infinite regress: if indeed God cannot coerce nothing (think about that phrase) so that it becomes something and therefore by necessity created out of what was already created, and if the already-created was created out of what was already created, and the already-already-created was… you get the point.  Unless other texts in Oord’s corpus deal with this problem of infinite  regress, I’m afraid that he still hasn’t surmounted Thomas in this respect.

On Human Freedom and Divine Bondage

Oord’s theology of creation gave me my first set of fits, and the second came from his discussions of freedom as a theological concept and its relationship to love.  As I noted earlier, Oord’s project is to make divine love the core of his theology, and therefore he insists from the beginning of the book that, in a system defined by love, God’s creations must have the freedom of will that allows for free return of love (10).  In the three chapters between his setup of the problem and his articulation of a revised systematic theology, Oord criticizes in turn Anders Nygren (chapter 2), with his sense that agape is the only genuine love and can only originate in God, not in mortals; Augustine (chapter 3), with his division between caritas and cupiditas and therefore (what Oord takes as) a moral neutralization of love; and Clark Pinnock (chapter 4), whose Open Theology does leave room for human freedom but insists so strongly on divine freedom that God remains in theory capable of hateful or apathetic act rather than loving act.  A proper Christian theology, asserts Oord, must hold that God’s act is in fact limited by his definition of love (110).

The logical problem does not show up in any one chapter–one must hold those two groups of assertions a bit closer to one another to get the real impact: a proper theology must maintain a robust sense of human freedom, but a proper theology must deny divine freedom.  Here we have the final outworking and overreach of Oord’s theology: rather than transcending the classical Protestant imbalance of divine freedom and human bondage, Oord makes man the master and God the servant.  Furthermore, in his insistence upon “involuntary divine self-limitation” (125, emphasis original).  Stepping beyond the obvious logical problems there (though perhaps I shouldn’t), the upshot of this sort of limited-deity theology is that Oord means precisely what Oord says when he says that human beings should look out for the “overall well-being” of God–God, after all, cannot make very many things happen in the world, so without the involvement of genuinely-free human beings, the hardly-free God is relatively impotent.

Oord’s motives, to repeat this point, seem to be good ones: by denying that love is the same as desire (per Augustine), he cuts off the possibility that God could have bad desires.  By bringing eros and philia and agape into his system, he makes sure that God does not lack any of the sorts of other-regard of which human beings are capable.  But when God becomes incapable of anything resembling wrath or historical act, the point of praising such a god becomes somewhat hard to see aesthetically, and although God is relieved of the blame that comes from being able to prevent evil but not doing so, the fear of a capricious deity gives way not to worship but to pity.  And while Christian piety has at times historically seen pity for Christ crucified as a genuine form of devotion, such devotion, as far as I can tell, is itself best framed by a grand narrative in which the goodness of the suffering Christ is itself vindicated eschatologically.

Overall Impressions

I realize that, with my relative ignorance of intellectual figures like Whitehead and process thinkers, I probably am missing some significant ideas that Oord is trying to bring to a popular audience.  That granted, I do think that The Nature of Love falls victim to the same sorts of problems that trouble other self-proclaimed “more biblical” systematic theologies.  In its rush to make a small set of Bible verses the center of the project, books like Oord’s ride roughshod over much of the rest of the Biblical tradition, forcing texts that on the obvious reading head in other directions into Procrustean readings where they acknowledge them at all.  While quoting Pinnock, Oord seems to miss the joke on him when Pinnock refers to his own reaction to evil as “lament” (100).  To present God as relatively impotent the way that Oord does makes nonsense (or at best “primitive” and thus inadequate theology) out of many of the Psalms (most of which are lament-Psalms), of Job (which consists largely of lament-speeches from Job), and of the prophetic oracles (many of which lament the fall of cities).  Much of the New Testament and more of the Old Testament proceeds from the working assumptions that God is perfectly capable of smashing evil out of existence (as Levenson himself recognizes) but, for reasons invisible to human intellect, has not yet done so.  That’s why the Psalms are always asking God to do so (not explaining why God is incapable of doing so), and that’s why the book of Revelation is full of scenes where God promises to coerce the Hell out of the persecutors of the Church.  (Okay, God actually coerces them into Hell, but you get the point.) Although Oord’s system solves some problems, it magnifies others.

In terms of the overall project, as I noted, I think Oord does a nice job of shaking up standard categories, and although I’ve not read Whitehead, I have to assume that he presents a fairly workable version of Whitehead-flavored systematic theology.  My objection is not to the shape of his system (I’m incapable of systematic theology myself, so I have to rely on folks like Oord and Hart and Milbank and Sanders) but to his claim that his system is unqualifiedly more biblical than his competition.  Perhaps part of the point of having a multivocal (66 books if you’re a Protestant) Holy Book is precisely to keep systems unstable, to confront strong systems of deterministic fore-ordination like Luther’s with all those pesky imperatives and conditionals and to refer open systems like Oord’s to all those promises of salvation that does not hinge on the might of the faithful.  And to show my own utter hypocrisy, I’ll point to Brueggemann’s Theology of the Old Testament as perhaps a more adequate description (not system) of Biblical revelation: it’s testimony and counter-testimony, always unsettling the settled in a continual insistence upon God’s freedom and mortals’ freedom and ultimately more freedom than systems can easily handle.

Except where it doesn’t.

2 thoughts on “Fear and Pity: A Review of The Nature of Love: A Theology for SpeakEasy Bloggers

  1. As a seminary student I’ve heard more than once the joke, “Who needs the Bible when you got Whitehead.”

    Seriously though, what I’ve come to realize is that some of what gets labeled process-relational philosophy is simply good biblical theology. However, on the other hand,not all process theology has biblical roots.

    Nathan, I am a little puzzled with the idea that your “incapable of doing systematic theology.” I know it seems to be an impossible task, but isn’t it the job of a church leader to be in some sense a “systematic theologian”?

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