Last night we were joined by theologian and philosopher Thomas Jay Oord, who talked about his understanding of the way in which God relates to us in each moment. I could not hope to capture our discussion with perfect accuracy, but I do want to share some of my own reflections on it, and invite you to add yours.
Thomas’ basic proposal was that we live one moment at a time, and that God acts before each moment to present us with a range of options, calling us to choose from among the best of them. In this way he beckons us towards love and compassion and maturity, not by coercing or controlling us, or by requiring that we walk a tightrope with only one good and certain way forward, but by respecting our capacity to make good choices and our freedom to make bad ones.
There was some concern in the room about the idea that God presents all the options, including the bad ones. Thomas answered this by arguing that because God allows his creation to live freely, it is in his nature to present all possible options while seeking to guide us towards the best ones. Perhaps it would be more comfortable to say that God allows all options to be presented to us, although that does change God’s role in the scheme somewhat. I think what is most important is that God allows us genuine freedom, and so that has to include the possibility of making bad choices.
What Thomas was presenting is a form of open theism, which holds among other things that God acts within time and experiences time as we do, so that he can engage with and respond to us in authentic and meaningful ways. This is something I have been interested in for a while, as it was significant to my undergraduate dissertation, and it is a way of thinking that makes utter sense to me as it seems consistent with how I experience God.
I realise that it may seem strange to say that God learns as we act, as it goes against traditional understandings of God’s nature, but the Bible is full of stories in which God changes his mind in response to human activity, and petitionary prayer makes very little sense if what we do has no effect on God at all. Of course the Bible also speaks of God as eternal and unchanging, but those passages tend to be poetic rather than rooted in divine encounter, and it is without doubt that prayer can be significant without petition, but Jesus really seemed to speak as if our prayers were effectual. I wholeheartedly believe that God is in active and loving relationship with the world, and if that contradicts traditional theism, then it is the latter which must go.
What really struck me about what Thomas shared, which seems so obvious but which I hadn’t given much thought to before, was the idea that the options that are available to us, and even the options that we realise are available to us, are determined by a multitude of different factors. Our relationship to God, our relationships with others, our upbringing, our education, our physical and mental health, our previous choices…the list could go on.
What that means is that the best option available to me when I was five will not be the same as the best option available to me know that I am nearly thirty. And the best option available to someone who lives a comfortable life will not be the same as the best option available to someone whose thoughts are dominated by worrying about where their next meal is coming from. And the best option available to someone who has spent years learning to hear the voice of God will not be the same as the best option available to someone who has never heard of Jesus. That is not to say that the young and the poor and the atheist cannot make good or even godly choices, but that they may not be the choices that the old and the rich and the religious think they should be making. God relates to each one of us as individuals, and so we must show everyone that same respect, calling them to make their best decisions instead of imposing on them what we think are our best decisions.
Thomas also reflected a little on the command to “be perfect as your Father is perfect”, and suggested that as impossible as that sounds, we can be perfect a moment at a time. Every time we choose from among our best options, which for Thomas means choosing to be loving, we are perfect as God is perfect. That doesn’t mean that we were perfect the moment before or that we will be perfect the moment after, but that in each moment we are given a fresh chance at perfection.
This led to some discussion around the word perfect. The Christian tradition has tended to understand perfection according to classical Greek ideals, and so we have come to think that divine perfection means to be all things without flaw or error, and have therefore fallen into thinking that this kind of perfection is impossible for us. However, the word we translate as perfect in Matthew 5:48 derives from the Greek teleos, which actually carries ideas of completion and purpose. If we define God’s perfection as his complete purpose, and if we see that as being loving and creative and just and compassionate, then suddenly his perfection is attainable for us.
We also had some conversation around the extent to which it was helpful to have such a framework in mind. Many of the decisions we make are on autopilot, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, especially as we develop a more Christlike character, and find ourselves drawn instinctively to the better options. And yet it would be so easy to fall into a rut of good enough decisions, and lose the insight and the creativity that enable us to recognise the best choices.
I think it is good for us to keep asking what our best option is, to open ourselves up to challenge and surprise, to look to do more than just good enough. It may sound exhausting, but I believe that God calls us into love and compassion because he wants those things for us as much as for anyone else, and so I trust that sometimes the best option for us will be rest or the best option for someone else will be to look after us. This isn’t about wearing us all out with holiness, but about creating more Christlike people in a more Christlike world.