Thomas Jay Oord is a serious philosophical theologian with a common touch. He’s able to articulate complicated ideas and subtle concepts in simple language which scratch where the average reader itches.

God Can’t, published in 2019, proved to be popular with readers precisely because it put into accessible terms the kind of ideas that Oord has been expounding for some time, namely that God does not sit idly by while the planet burns and humans kill one another refusing to act except by occasional whim. Rather than refusing to act “God can’t”, Oord insists.

God Can’t, and its now companion piece God Can’t, Q&A (published in 2020) are aimed at readers who want to reconcile their conviction that somehow God is “real” with a growing body of experience that says things aren’t the way they should be. Tellingly Oord foregrounds the experience of real people, using small case studies in the former, and reflecting on readers’ questions in the follow up. He does this to great effect, and does his very best to avoid the usual dodges employed by confessional theologians – taking aim particularly at the “it’s a mystery” trope favoured by those who struggle to articulate or justify why a good God might allow or even ‘ordain’ suffering.

In 2015 Stephen Fry launched in to a blistering televised critique of the interventionist God who chooses not to intervene. The video went viral, Fry had articulated the basic problem with so much of popular Christian thinking – effectively that the God who allows unspeakable torment of blameless creatures is some sort of monster.

What Oord exposes is that there is an alternative view of God which takes seriously this critique and offers a plausible alternative. Along the way he also points out other problems with the idea of an omnipotent deity. “Its hard to feel motivated to solve problems an allegedly omnipotent God could solve alone…” he muses, putting his finger on the reason why so many Christians smile blithely in the face of climate catastrophe and political despotism.

At times the writing is almost preacherly, reflecting the pastoral vocation that competes for time with Oord’s academic work. Indeed it is perhaps this vocation which has caused problems for Oord in the past, he has previously fallen foul of institutional powers that be which objected (unjustly) to his deeply pastoral theology. He falls foul too of those who think that he is saying that God is entirely powerless – but that’s a shallow reading of his thought. God, according to Oord, is still ‘al-mighty’ but needs our cooperation in order to effect change. Love never coerces, he argues. Here he is squarely in the realm of neo Whiteheadian Process theology as he begins to talk about ‘indispensable love synergy’ and even refers sparingly to the ‘lure’ of God among other less technical metaphors. Perhaps this area exposes one of the potential weaknesses in his theology (shared by some other process theologians) the insistence that at times even individual cells in the body might respond to God’s loving lure. This kind of explanation is given here and in other similar literature to explain some ‘healing miracles’ and other unexplained answers to prayer. Personally I find this panpsychist explanation not to be entirely convincing, and worry that it verges too closely to the ‘mystery’ argument which Oord does so well to dispense with.

For The Love of Wisdom and The Wisdom of Love · Thomas Jay Oord

Confessing Christians, particularly those who take a ‘high’ approach to the Bible, will appreciate his approach. Those who take a more literary approach to Biblical texts might find his reading of certain passages a little over worked. This does however make him an excellent interlocutor for evangelicals looking for a better way to understand the God of their upbringing, and crucially it doesn’t spoil the great thinking or writing.

In “Q&A” Oord tackles some of the obvious questions which arise from his first – If God can’t, then ‘why pray?’ for instance, and questions about the afterlife among a variety of others. Here again some readers will struggle with his adherence to what I would term ‘Biblicism’ (his apparently literal approach to the virgin birth for example) but he remains entirely coherent in his argument, and sticks closely to his brand of Christianity without ever making exclusive claims to truth. Perhaps at times the conversational tone he employs, which makes the books so readable, isn’t quite adequate to the task of unpacking complex ideas, the nature of God for instance would perhaps be better tackled in more technical language. This might have assuaged some of his critics, but it would also have defeated the point of the exercise.

Throughout the books he advances an idea of God which is panentheist and kenotic, but he does this in a personal and personable way which manages not to alienate or confuse the average reader. His tight prose keeps the reader moving through the books and his consistent recourse to ‘every-man’ stories from his friends and readers means the whole thing remains firmly rooted in the day to day realities of life.

I would have liked him to reject some of the problematic approaches to the Bible which lead many to adopt the erroneous view of God which he spends so much of the book addressing, but perhaps it’s more powerful for his not doing so. Again his pastoral heart is evident as he takes the beliefs and concerns of the reader seriously, and addresses them from a place of love and respect.

TLDR version: Theodicy is the question of why evil exists when God is supposed to be good. There are lots of approaches to this question, I’ll be pursuing one of them in the next article.

Over the next few weeks I plan to publish a number of blogs looking at some important questions of Christian theology, and giving what might for some be a new perspective on them.

I’m always keen to acknowledge that my own perspective is forever evolving, I know I’m wrong about some things, and I’m in a constant process of learning. I think of this as a ‘grounded mind’ approach: its an acceptance of our flawed humanity, and that we’re not in a position to know or understand everything. My opinion is that this is the most healthy approach any of us can take, in fact I distrust any other approach.

Certainty is too much of an idol for most of us. Doubt and faith make much better bedfellows than certainty and faith, a combination of the first sort produces humility, the latter tends to produce arrogance. Tweet this!

On that basis, I hope some of these thoughts develop into conversations, genuine discussions of perspectives on truth. But for that to happen we need to share some conceptual language. One of the most important concepts in theology, is that of ‘Theodicy’ – so what does that mean?

The word theodicy is not particularly old, only a few centuries, it was developed by a theologian looking at one of the most fundamental issues for any one who accepts the idea of ‘God’ – whatever form that may take. The question is: ‘How can a morally good God exist in a world which is so clearly full of bad things?’

If a good God exists, then how do we explain the bad things that happen?

Since it’s coining, theodicy has been explored by various theorists and writers, not all of them theologians. For instance, Max Weber, the sociologist, considered theodicy to be a human response to a world in which many things are difficult to explain. Perhaps the most common reframing of this kind of concept, is ‘why do bad things happen to good people?’ (Personally I prefer to ask the opposite question.)

But in a theological sense, theodicy concerns the question of why a/the God would ‘allow’ or ‘permit’ suffering. What is the meaning of evil in the face of an ultimate goodness? It does require a starting point of an acceptance of God as in some way objectively ‘real’ – although precisely what that means remains debatable.

Various answers have been formulated to address this question, they include ideas about the purposes of evil, and the nature of God’s will. All of these arguments have strengths and weaknesses, which are well addressed in relevant pieces of literature. In the next few posts I will ask some of the fundamental questions about the nature of God which help us get to the root of this problem – in particular I will ask if God should really be understood as ‘all powerful’ and ‘in control’, and also whether God can be said to be ‘unchanging’.