An Extended Footnote/Addendum to My Review of Oord’s The Uncontrolling Love of God…
In that review, posted here on November 28, 2015, I mentioned an evangelical Wesleyan philosopher who, I believe, settled the “problem” of God and gratuitous evil within a frame of reference of free will theism (belief in libertarian freedom). I suggested that had Oord read Evil and the Christian God (Baker, 1982) by Michael Peterson perhaps his strong objections to belief in a good God who permits gratuitous evil (evil that serves no “greater good”) would have been resolved. Peterson’s position is mine, too. (In fact, one of my first published pieces was a review of Peterson’s book in Eternity in, I think, 1983.)
At least one person here wanted to purchase Evil and the Christian God and found its cost too high on Amazon (around $125). It has gone out of print, unfortunately, and the few reprints around are priced exorbitantly.
So I contacted Michael, who teaches at Asbury Theological Seminary, who informed me that his basic thesis in Evil and the Christian God may be found also in his chapter on “The Problem of Evil: The Case against God’s Existence” in Reason and Religious Belief: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion authored by him together with William Hasker, Bruce Reichenbach, and David Basinger (Oxford University Press, 1991). He mentioned that he also has a contract to write a new book on the problem of evil for another publisher and is slowly working on that book. It will contain an updated version of the argument in Evil and the Christian God and his chapter in Reason and Religious Belief.
Here is Peterson’s argument in a nutshell: “For God to guarantee the success of good and prevent gratuitous evil would be for Him to jeopardize the significance of the human struggle for value. … For God to preclude the possibility of gratuitous evils would also be for Him to preclude the possibility of some meaningful goods.” (Evil and the Christian God, 148)
Whereas Oord focuses in The Uncontrolling Love of God on the nature of God’s love (from within an “open and relational worldview” which is basically “free will theism”) and concludes that such love cannot permit gratuitous evils, Peterson focuses on the nature of libertarian free will (also from within framework of free will theism) and concludes that it cannot be meticulously manipulated even by an omnipotent and perfectly good, loving God.
So, in effect, Peterson’s argument is that even a perfectly good, perfectly loving, completely omnipotent God cannot “step in” to prevent every instance of gratuitous evil without “ending his project,” so to speak. (I assume Peterson does believe that God will do it someday and why he doesn’t do it now is a mystery to us but not to him.) So, Peterson’s argument would seem to be similar to Greg Boyd’s in Is God to Blame? and E. Frank Tupper’s in The Scandalous Providence of God—two other books I mentioned that Oord might have read but apparently didn’t. I am not saying either Peterson or Boyd would agree with Tupper’s exact words, but I think Tupper nicely, concisely summarizing their common point of view when he says that in every truly tragic situation of evil God does all that God can do given the particularities of the situation. In other words, God is never arbitrary but does act according to “rules” we can only guess at. Peterson’s guess makes the most sense to me and I prefer its problems to what I see as Oord’s—viz., leaving God impotent (not even “self-limiting”) ever unilaterally and supernaturally to intervene to control people and events.
With Peterson and certain other philosophers (viz., Hasker and Peter Van Inwagen) and with Boyd and Tupper, I believe the biblical narrative is best interpreted as assuming, if not directly saying, that God is both perfectly loving and omnipotent and permits gratuitous evils but is not arbitrary. And I think Peterson’s arguments have removed the philosophical problems sufficiently that there is no rational obstacle to embracing that belief. That is, it does not suffer, as Oord claims, from “explanatory inconsistency.” It leaves us with a mystery that I can live with—why God does not intervene always to prevent gratuitous evils. But it says God has sufficient reasons for everything he does (without falling back on meticulous providence and a “greater good” theodicy that claims every single event in history has a divine purpose).
In other words, I am claiming that the problems Oord raises with the model of providence he calls “Empowering and Overpowering” (into which he lumps me) have been solved by people he does not mention. Whether he has read them or not is unknown to me. He may have, but I don’t see evidence of it in The Uncontrolling Love of God.
Let me be more specific than before (even in my review post of Oord’s book). If I adopted his view I would have real problems praying for God to intervene in situations and circumstances such as healing a person who is unconscious. (That’s just one example; I can think of many more.) But perhaps that’s because I don’t believe in pansychism which I suspect Oord does (I’m not sure). (In pansychism the unconscious person’s molecules or atoms or “energy events” have some degree of consciousness and free will.) And it’s because, given Oord’s view of God’s agency and abilities, given his nature as “essential kenosis” and “uncoercing love,” I would not believe God could heal the person without their permission and possibly also cooperation.
From within the view of providence that I hold, together with Peterson and the others I mentioned above, prayer might very well be one of the conditions God needs, given the overall project of God, to heal in some circumstances. This is one of the reasons I remain passionate about Christian prayer for healing—something many “mainline evangelicals” (not to mention “mainline Protestants” in general) have simply given up on.
Not only do I see healing in the Bible, and commandments to pray for the sick, but healing has played a role in much Christian history (sometimes admittedly using methods about which I am dubious) and especially in my Christian tradition of birth—the Holiness-Pentecostal Movements (including such notables as A. B. Simpson, founder of the Christian Missionary Alliance denomination)—and I was myself healed by God in response to prayer. I know many people who have similar testimonies of supernatural healing, some being cases where they could not have given their consent or cooperated with God’s healing power.
It is an extremely important part of my Christian spirituality and theology to believe that if a friend or colleague (or really anyone) is injured in an accident and is in a coma I can and should pray for God’s loving, compassionate, unilateral, “coercive” intervention to heal that person. I see that in Scripture—e.g., in Jesus’s raising the dead—and I have heard many convincing testimonies of it over the years of my life (often whispered as if saying it out loud would bring some kind of injury to the person’s reputation as sane and scholarly). And I do not think my own ten year old “faith” played any role whatsoever in my own healing. It was solely God’s doing in response to the faith-filled prayers of my church’s elders who laid hands on me, anointed me with oil, and prayed for my healing. I remember lying there extremely ill, knowing that virtually everyone with my particular illness eventually dies from its consequences (as my mother did), and having no faith—only hope.
To me, to adopt Oord’s view, would be a major paradigm shift not only in my theology but also in my spirituality. That is a Caesar’s Rubicon I cannot cross. If I were to cross it, I would go all the way to process theology which I think is its inevitable trajectory.