A couple of Sundays back we returned to some of the ideas Thomas Jay Oord shared at Cafe Theologique back in March. I very digilently took notes and then very clumsily lost them, so I’m afraid I will be reflecting on what I can remember, rather than faithfully recording what Simon shared and we discussed.
The first thing Oord says is that God is spirit and so cannot directly effect the material world. I have never really thought of God having a corpereal form except in Christ, so on one level this doesn’t come as any kind of surprise, but saying that spirit cannot interact with matter has all sort of consequences for how we understand and live out our faith. It is a powerful reminder of our responsibility to be good stewards and good neighbours – if “Christ has no body now on earth but yours” (Tereas de Avila) then we must act in the world on his behalf – but it is not clear what it means for miracles.
How can an eye or a leg grow back if God cannot work with that tissue? Do our cells have a kind of consciousness that God can speak to? Or do all miracles have a rational physical explanation that has nothing to do with God at all? I have absolutely no idea [EDIT: not quite true, I have a very definite idea that miracles are of God, even if I don’t know exactly how] but I do wonder if saying that God is spirit might not be the same as saying that God cannot interact with matter. We take our body/soul dualism from Greek philosophy, but Jewish thought seems to have a more integrated view, and so perhaps spirit and matter are more interconnected than we know.
In case the picture wasn’t enough of a clue, the second thing Oord says is that God is love and that love is always uncontrolling. That God is love is unarguably one of the central tenets of our faith, and that love is uncontrolling seems to capture something we instinctively know about love, but together these statements add further challenge to the idea that divine sovereignty means that God is in control. That may feel uncomfortable and disorientating, like taking away a safety net or leaving everything open to chaos, but I was interested to find that when I looked for verses from scripture about God being in control, what I got were verses about God being faithful and holding authority. God can still be engaged and working out divine purposes, without acting like the Almighty Micromanager.
And surely we must say that God acts (whatever that looks like) in ways that are liberating rather than coercive, or we find ourselves with a Divine Dictator who looks nothing like the Lord who is gracious and compassionate, and nothing like the Christ who washed the feet of his dicsiples and gave himself up to death on a cross. As Bishop Curry reminded us, there is power in love, but it is the power to redeem and to transform, not to control or to manipulate.
[By the way, if you’ve not seen the sermon from the royal wedding yet, go watch it and then put it on repeat and pin it to your fridge.]
So I am totally with Oord on his second point, and I’m most of the way there on his first, but I am still working through everything that it all means, not least for the way I understand prayer. My experience and my reading of scripture tell me that I live in dynamic relationship with God, so that while I can no more coerce God than God can control me, God hears my prayers and is moved by them and can respond to them. That is a wonderful thing, but it does leave me with some tricky questions about what is happening when God doesn’t seem to be responding.
Simon presented one possibility, which suggests that because God works through influence and collaboration and not direct action, God’s will can be thwarted. There is a scriptural basis for this in an odd story from Daniel 10, when the man with a face like lightning who appears to the prophet says that he was delayed by the Prince of Persia, but was able to helped by the chief of princes, who the context suggests is a kind of territorial spirit. This suggests that God may want to speak and act through agents, but these may be prevented by things that are happening in the spiritual realm, and perhaps in the physical realm too, if we can also be agents of God.
I appreciate that there are a whole host of possible repsonses to this idea, and I admit that mine are mixed, but I do think there is something strangely comforting in the idea that God is trying to heal and to comfort and to renew, it just doesn’t always happen because there are things that are stopping it. It doesn’t lessen the pain of disease or depression or disaster, but it does help me to think that those things are the symptoms of a broken world which even God must negotiate, and not the collateral damage left by a God who powers through creation and ignores its cries.
5 thoughts on “On God and Love and Prayer”
“The first thing Oord says is that God is spirit and so cannot directly effect the material world”
Sorry to be so blunt, but this sounds like nonsense to me, and makes me feel much less inclined to take seriously anything else that Oord has to say!
What basis does he have for such a claim? It seems to me to contradict all sorts of things which are pretty fundamental to our faith – e.g. that God invented matter in the first place, that Jesus performed all kinds of physical miracles, and that Jesus was raised from the dead.
And yes, I think this does play to a Greek dualist version of the cosmos, rather than to a much more integrated Hebrew perspective.
There is every chance that I have horribly misunderstood or misrepresented what Oord says, and I may dig an even deeper hole for myself now, but I’ll try and add a little more. My understanding is that he believes God is engaged with the world, but works through influence rather than direct effect (or bodily impact as I’ve just read in one of his blogs). The example Simon gave is that Oord would say that God could not pull a drowning man out of a river, but could guide or encourage someone else to pull the man out. So that could still allow for creation and miracles, but understood in terms of God speaking to matter rather shaping it. I think it is all part of his focus on God being uncontrolling and working collaboratively with creation, but to me it introduces an unnecessary complication. I am quite happy to think that God can have a direct effect on matter without that being coercive, and I am inclined towards a more integrated view of things, which is why I have no problem saying that God is spirit (which I don’t fully understand but see as shorthand for saying that God does not have physical form in the way that I do), but I don’t think that necessitates saying God can’t impact matter. It might be worth trying to read some of Oord’s stuff, just to wrestle with what he’s saying first hand.
I guess my biggest question is, how much of this is coming from:
a) The Bible
b) His experience
c) His own ideas
He did say at the Revive session I went to, that he didn’t believe (or possibly wasn’t sure whether?) there was an actual devil. This strikes me as the view of someone who has only had quite limited actual spiritual experience, and perhaps isn’t therefore in the best position from which to teach others about how God interacts with the world!
I’m very wary of any viewpoint which limits God’s abilities to “things that we think we can give a good explanation for”!
I’m not familiar enough with his work to be able to say exactly where it’s all coming from, but I do think that each of those sources is valuable in its own way. I’d also be wary of making any judgement about his spiritual experience and whether or not it qualifies him to teach, not least because we all experience spirituality very differently. He does have some challenging ideas, but I think they’re worth hearing even if I don’t completely agree with them. They’ve provoked a conversation, and that’s great because that is how theology should be done.
Fair enough Leigh – good response! 🙂
I don’t really have time to look more deeply into this at the moment, and remain wary/suspicious of some of these ideas – but we can agree to disagree about that! 🙂
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