After the Conference: Thomas Jay Oord

Allow me to begin this post by praising Gabriel Gordon’s remarkable ability to network with diverse speakers. In putting together the first annual Misfits conference, Gabriel communicated with and sold on attendance academic philosophers, Southern Baptists, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, and (at least one) Eastern Orthodox. Not just any young person in their early twenties could accomplish this, but Gabriel did.

In preparing for the two talks by our keynote speaker Dr. Thomas Jay Oord (Northwest Nazarene University), I checked YouTube for previous lectures and found an address Dr. Oord gave at Oxford University. It turned out to be quite similar to the two part series Oord presented at the Misfits conference, except the conference version included some additional comments, including an elaboration on Oord’s position on miracles.

I had heard of Thomas Jay Oord before. Gabriel mentioned his concepts of essential kenosis and uncontrolling love. A brief internet search showed Oord’s academic work with process thought, the intersection of science and religion, and theodicy. In short, my opinion of Dr. Oord is that he lays his theodicy on the bedrock of his commitment to process thought. While his commitment to process thought was itself left largely unaddressed at the conference, conclusions that seem controversial to me were made without adequately addressing the premises. It may be that I am being overly critical here; Oord’s talk was on theodicy, not process theism. But by the same token, Oord attempts in his theodicy to criticize much of the prior Christian tradition, which creates an interesting situation. While rejecting the classical Christian picture of theism — impassibility, creatio ex nihilo, primary and secondary causality, the analogia entis — Oord seems to think he can offer meaningful criticism of classical Christian theodicy, which seems misguided to me from the beginning.

Sacrifice of Isaac (Caravaggio)

However, just as Oord cannot criticize the whole classical theistic tradition in only two lectures on theodicy, neither can I offer a complete rejoinder in a blog post or two. I will simply offer some brief responses to some of the assertions that Oord’s theodicy seems to depend upon.

Dr. Oord defines evil as anything that, when all things are considered, makes the world worse than it might have been. I would argue that on this definition of evil alone, classical theodicies can be vindicated. However, the difference is that where the classical theologian is seemingly more willing to acknowledge that we do not know all things (for example, we do not claim to comprehend the divine essence, where the semi-Arian Eunomious famously asserted that he could), Oord is apparently more comfortable with claiming to be able to weigh, consider, and value “all things” sufficiently to straightforwardly answer the problem of evil. What would it mean to consider all things and make a judgment as to the world’s value (good or evil)? Creation is other than God; as the transcendent Good in Himself, for God to create necessarily entails actualizing a world — whether or not this is conceived in time (Aristotle, for example, denied creation in time), it must be conceived ontologically, according to the classical view, which Oord appears to nod at in conceding that God is in some sense a “necessary cause” — that is other (and thereby ontologically less) than Himself. Creation is less than God. What is more, we can easily imagine a state of affairs that is or seems more pleasant than the current (or any) stage in history. (Really this is itself the problem of theodicy.) It seems that God has created a world that is worse than it might have been. But does it follow that the world is evil?

Dr. Oord’s portrayal of historical theodicy also struck me as problematic. As representatives for the seven or so live options he presents, only two of them can be straightforwardly associated with authors older than one century, and these are the God of Calvinism, for Whom there is no distinction between will and permission; and the deist ‘god’ of Voltaire, a cosmic mechanic hardly representative of the Christian God of transcendent “necessary being”. Oord coyly attempts to implicate Aquinas in the equivocal theological language of Derrida; but Aquinas famously held not to equivocal nor univocal, but analogical language of God. With the patristic consensus, Aquinas taught that our most certain knowledge of God is apophatic: we know God mostly through what He is not. Oord later follows a similar path when he considers the implications of God as incorporeal. We know that God does not have a body. What is the Divine Spirit? What positive semantic content could we construct about it? The cataphatic project is inevitably more risky than the apophatic, and for Christian thought reaches its pinnacle in the revealed doctrine of the Trinity. If Oord wishes to represent a Christian theodicy, why does he not draw from the deep wells that we had before the rise of process thought? Where is Irenaeus and his theodicy of soul-making? Augustine and the metaphysics of the privatio boni? Gregory of Nyssa and the theology of freedom? Aquinas and his metaphysical emphasis on the divine goodness? It is difficult for me to believe that Oord’s talk contained sufficient continuity with Christian thought as a whole so as to reasonably claim status as a Christian theodicy.

What we get from Dr. Oord, rather than a synthesis of the Christian revelation, is a set of crude, mechanistic musings on the implications of embodiment and permission. Perhaps some kind of existential inertia is assumed throughout. Claiming to be informed by Scripture, Oord is very comfortable with removing the concept of natural miracles (miracles that do not involve cooperation of divine and creaturely will), despite their consistent presence in Scripture. True, the Christian faith and its Scriptures absolutely require a hermeneutic, but there are already abundant examples of hermeneutics that do not involve philosophical haphazard. What would it mean to say that God is a necessary cause if He can’t even make a piece of stone float on water? If He could not even in principle annihilate a perpetrator of abuse if He so wished? In what sense is a God so conceived necessary for anything?

Here I can transition into some positive feedback regarding Dr. Oord’s talks. Oord is a faithful son of Wesley in the respect that he absolutely affirms the responsibility of human beings for and their implication in this vale of tears and evil. However one’s metaphysics get to the point, the Christian must say that God desires from creatures a voluntary participation in His will. Here I want to praise Oord. I think he is absolutely correct. A theology that absolves human beings of responsibility for present evil and sin in our world is not only coy but disastrous. Our meditation on the divine and human will — imminent in a good Christology, as Maximus the Confessor believed — must of needs bring us to the acknowledgement that we are responsible for much of the evil of the world. (Demonology goes a long way in accounting for “natural” evils, in my opinion, but that is getting a bit sidetracked.) The baptized Christian Church is the Body of Christ on earth. Her vocation (our vocation) is to face suffering head on. The archetype of the Christian, our Christ, suffered and died for our sins. (Although Oord alludes to Christological concepts such as kenosis, I did not find his engagement with Christology, probably Christianity’s deepest answer to evil, to be sufficient.) We must also face unjust suffering. Our apostles were said to have “rejoiced” at the opportunity to suffer for the sake of Christ. How can we reject participation in a fallen world when our God in Christ “emptied Himself, taking the form of a slave” to redeem the cosmos?

I may write more on this topic in a future post. In summary, I intend this post as a calling into question not so much the conclusions of Oord’s presentations as some of the premises (spoken and unspoken). I do not believe that theodicy can survive apart from Christology and ecclesiology: the Church is the Body of Christ and it is through her, her sacraments, and her Scriptures that we recapitulate and conform our minds to the Mind of Christ. I would be more open to Oord’s theodicy if it seemed to me that the Church of history was. However, it would seem she opted for other paths, and speaking for myself, I believe that they are better.

One thought on “After the Conference: Thomas Jay Oord

  1. I was especially interested to read review since I was unable to attend the conference. I note your critique of Oord’s theodicy, and your commendation of his giving of responsibility to human beings for at least much of the evil in our world today.

    I confess, I looked up theodicy, “the vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the existence of evil,” and appreciated that you embedded a link for that. I’m also grateful for the links to Oord’s lecture, as I am thinking I will need to listen to it to completely follow your critique.

    Was he saying God cannot create evil, and He cannot do anything evil, therefore evil is entirely on demonic forces and us? Which, okay, but where did our combined capacity for evil come from? Are we like God, after all, able to bring something out of nothing? If I were to listen to Oord’s lecture, would the answer be in there?

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