A few years ago, I started to become passionately interested in theology. One of the main reasons for this interest had to do with my own evolving journey of faith. Specifically, I came to a point in my journey where I realised I had long held onto beliefs that, in the cold light of day, simply didn’t stack up. By that I don’t just mean I believed things that were unlikely, such as, for example, the resurrection of Jesus; the Christian faith has always, at its core, been about things that seem unlikely from the lowly perspective of homo sapiens. Rather, I mean I had believed things that were internally contradictory; specifically, I had believed ideas that were in conflict with some of the core tenets of the faith. The most obvious example is the idea that a God who is love and light, and in whom there is no darkness at all (see 1 John 1:5), had insisted on the cruel execution of his spotlessly innocent Son as the only acceptable price that must be paid to enable the rest of us sinners to escape eternal torture. Put like that, it sounds perfectly barmy; yet I’d glibly and unthinkingly accepted and believed it for years, as countless other Christians continue to do.
The key word in that last sentence is unthinkingly: as adherents to a religious faith, it’s all too easy for us to accept without question whatever doctrine happens to be handed to us, when even the most basic critical assessment would easily reveal glaring contradictions and inconsistencies. That’s why I’m convinced two of the key characteristics of good theological thinking are clarity and consistency: good theology should compel us to think clearly about what we believe and why we believe it; and good theology should be internally consistent, not requiring us to believe things that are glaringly at odds with each other. From this perspective, Thomas Jay Oord’s new book God Can’t is an example of excellent theological thinking, encouraging us to wrestle with questions that are often left on the “too difficult” pile, and urging us not to settle for pat and ultimately unsatisfying answers.
The book’s subtitle aptly explains its subject matter: How to believe in God and love after tragedy, abuse and other evils. As he did in his previous book, The Uncontrolling Love of God (read my review here), Oord prizes open the theological can of worms that is theodicy: the question of why a good and loving God would allow evil. The main difference between the two books is that where The Uncontrolling Love of God was unashamedly academic (though not inaccessible for all that), God Can’t is aimed squarely at the ordinary, non-academic reader. More than that, as its subtitle suggests, at heart it’s a pastoral work, aimed at helping real people who have experienced (or witnessed others experience) real tragedy, abuse and/or other forms of evil, and who have been left wondering where God was and why he didn’t intervene to protect or rescue them.
The book’s title is, perhaps deliberately, controversial. To many Christians, the idea that there is anything God can’t do will be hard to swallow. So used are we to the idea of God’s absolute omnipotence that it has, in truth, tended to become more foundational to our doctrine of God than even the idea of God’s love. And thus we end up accepting and somehow believing just the kind of theological contradiction I referred to in my opening paragraph: that God is both perfect in his love and absolutely omnipotent. The reason this is a contradiction is, of course, that a God who could prevent evil but doesn’t cannot, in the final analysis, accurately be described as loving.
In response to this dilemma, Oord proposes and unpacks the idea of what he calls essential kenosis: basically, that God’s very nature is one of self-giving, and that such a self-giving nature is incompatible with the kind of absolute control omnipotence requires. To quote from page 31 of the book:
This is the “God can’t” that sits behind the book’s title, and out of this one simple premise flows a series of five principles:
- God can’t prevent evil
- God feels our pain
- God works to heal
- God squeezes good from bad
- God needs our cooperation
Each of these principles is given its own chapter, in which Oord explores the principle by recounting real-life stories that challenge preconceived notions about God’s sovereignty and omnipotence, highlighting instead all the ways God works to try to bring about the best possible outcome in any given situation, without ever seizing control or overriding human will or creaturely agency. Each chapter concludes with a summary and suggested questions, making the book ideal subject matter for reading and discussion groups.
One could be forgiven for wondering whether a book titled God Can’t isn’t merely an exercise in negation: a litany of things God can’t or won’t do, or a sustained barrage of carping criticism against traditional ideas about God. Rest assured it is neither of those things. In daring to boldly butcher the sacred cow of unchallengeable divine omnipotence, Oord offers clear and consistent answers to the age-old problem of theodicy. Ultimately, he presents to us afresh a God who, in his uncontrolling love, labours incessantly to bring opportunities for healing, flourishing and transformation in ways no all-controlling deity could ever do.
Rare is the book that both stimulates clear theological thinking and brings pastoral comfort and encouragement; God Can’t is one such book. Whether you’re an amateur theologian in search of clarity and consistency or someone who has wrestled earnestly with the question of evil, suffering and God’s providence, I warmly commend it to you.
[God Can’t is published by SacraSage Press. I was kindly provided with a review copy by the author. I was not required to write a positive review.]