A Provocative and Pastoral Theodicy: A Brief Review of God Can’t by Thomas Jay Oord

As I finished reading God Can’t by Thomas Jay Oord, I could hear the iconic chorus from Bobby Caldwell’s 1978 classic record, “What You Won’t Do For Love,” echoing through my mind. Of course, my version is enhanced by the ’98 Tupac remake, but that’s beside the point. Oord’s latest book once again focuses readers’ attention on his life’s work and the center of his theological project: the God of love. Tom Oord is as relentless in his pursuit of this God of love as the character in Caldwell’s classic. His thesis is as equally demanding. Readers will be asked to surrender much of their preconceived notions about God. The question becomes for readers “What would you do for love?” The reader must decide if they can make the necessary adjustments to their theology to accommodate Tom’s admittedly radical restructuring. Either way, this book will deeply challenge readers—both those who can’t make the shift as well as those who can.

Before I outline the message of God Can’t, a quick word about the medium. My first “real job” at seventeen was for a pre-press publishing company as a typesetter. I mostly did copy editing and page layout. But occasionally I got to design the style sheet for a new book. Since then, I’ve been sensitive to the tone a book communicates through its choices of typeface, spacing, pull quotes, etc. The aesthetic of God Can’t misses the mark significantly. For starters, the san serif font used for the base text of the book has an impersonal feel that clashes with the highly personal message. It comes across as very clinical, even austere. It’s almost as if it is text lifted from a webpage. But by far the most egregious formatting blunder are the hideous pull quotes. The stylized and distressed script font is difficult to read and the odd background gradient looks like a smudge. The all-black blank pages were also a design mystery to me. What a strange waste of ink. If God Can’t gets a second edition, I sincerely hope it also receives a redesign.

Thankfully the content is much better than its formatting. Tom sets an highly ambitious goal for this project: to solve the problem of evil. To do this, he encourages readers to adopt five theological propositions that build upon each other to form a coherent theodicy. Whether it is a successful theodicy will depend upon the reader. For many, I suspect it will be a bridge too far. But I also expect that perhaps an equal number inclined toward such a book will be deeply impacted.

The five propositions are:

  1. God Can’t Prevent Evil
  2. God Feels Our Pain
  3. God Works to Heal
  4. God Squeezes Good from Bad
  5. God Needs our Cooperation

Anyone who has followed Tom’s work over the years, particularly his recent book The Uncontrolling Love of God, will not be too surprised by these points. In fact, I think it’s fair to say God Can’t is a condensed and more accessible version of the former. I’ve known Tom personally since 2007, and this will be the fifth book I’ve read that he’s either written or edited. One of the things I simultaneously admire and cringe about Tom’s writing is his determination to use negative language like the book’s title. Of course this grabs attention. But, knowing Tom, I suspect there is a deeper motivation at play. Tom doesn’t want to obscure the demanding nature of his thesis. He could rephrase things to soften the initial shock some, but eventually people will catch on to what he’s actually implying and may feel deceived. There’s no deception in God Can’t. Tom has laid out his proposal in bold terms. He is in fact proposing a radical reconstruction of the conventional view of God.

To do this, Tom makes two things crystal clear. First, God is love. Just how utterly counter-intuitive this is to most Westerners, much less Evangelicals, is made apparent by Tom’s commonsensical approach to omnipotence, free will, and relationship. If God is love, God doesn’t coerce, because coercion isn’t loving. Love requires mutuality, freedom, consent. It’s so simple, I dare say most Christians don’t get it. But Tom makes this his starting place. If God looks like Jesus dying for us on the Cross, then God’s “power” is of an altogether different kind than what we typically think of as power. God doesn’t obliterate through brute force; God overcomes through the strength of self-giving love.

The second crystal clear point Tom makes is that evil is real and all traditional explanations for it fail. He does this with a slew of stories that vividly illustrate the destructive power not only of real evil, but also of the thoughtless comments/explanations religious people often offer survivors. This aspect of the book is where Tom shines. Sure, he’s an academic with an impressive vita, but he also has the heart of a pastor. This book offers pastoral comfort to those who suffer not just because of evil but also because of the no-good theologies that often trail not far behind.

Tom’s ethical arguments in the book strike me as solid; his metaphysical ones, much less so. For example, my first reservation comes from the way Tom characterizes God’s non-corporeal being. If there’s one thing that raises red flags for me in theology, it’s dualism. I couldn’t help but think that Tom’s insistence on God’s non-corporeal nature slams against the rocks of Jesus’s embodiment. The Incarnation is a vital cornerstone of Christian theology: God in Christ has taken on human flesh, a body. And, actually, this has deep ethical implications. The Creator God isn’t “above” matter, isn’t incompatible with embodiment. This is foundational for theologies of social justice, which emphasize the importance of our lived experiences—things like poverty, labor exploitation, systemic oppression, racism, etc. What would it mean then to deny this? I’m not sure Tom intends to deny this, but his rhetoric in this book certainly comes close. Could not the same ethical arguments be made without the insistence on metaphysical absolutes? I’m much more convinced God is uncontrolling because God is love than I am convinced God is uncontrolling because God is non-corporeal. Jesus has a body, and Jesus is the embodiment of uncontrolling love.

I’m also less than impressed with Tom’s dichotomy between the “natural consequences” of evil and God’s agency in judgment. This strikes me as an Enlightenment distinction where one is unnecessary, like the separation of “religion” from other aspects of life. Since God is the architect of the system by which we receive consequences for our divergence from God’s love, God is responsible for those judgments. This dichotomy divorces God from the God-infused world. Tom argues that God permeates every aspect of life. I agree, and therefore God is as present in those consequences as God is present as co-sufferer. I think Tom here is attempting to counter-balance the large majority of Christian theologies which present God as an aloof judge who stands outside our pain and suffering. But in creating this unnecessary dichotomy, Tom undermines his own strong contention about God’s personal presence.

Which brings me to one of my frustrations about the common overemphasis of divine omnipresence. Of late, this has become quite common in progressive Christian theological circles. But, it utterly fails to account for God’s manifest presence. Not only does the Bible attest to locations in space and time where God’s presence is focused in extraordinary ways, it has also been the experience of people the world over and throughout church history. God’s presence in the Jerusalem temple wasn’t merely God’s omnipresence. God’s presence with the Israelites in the wilderness was not merely God’s omnipresence. God’s presence in the form of a dove descending on Jesus during his baptism was not merely God’s omnipresence. Any theology that does not account for these acute instances of God’s presence is severely lacking something. It has flattened God into something universal and less personal, everywhere and nowhere in particular. I’m not sure that’s a step in the right direction.

Tom’s theodicy also does not account for anything like the demonic or angelic, not even principalities and powers in the Winkian sense. There’s no warfare worldview explored or developed. So, the only agents involved are humans and God. I find this a significant deficiency. At the very least, a thoroughgoing theodicy must include the systemic, collective evil that is independent of both individual humans and God, not to mention personal spiritual agents at work in the unseen realm. Since God Can’t doesn’t take up these subjects, I don’t know what, if any, part they play in Tom’s theodicy. It appears they don’t factor at all and I find that unfortunate.

Despite these few drawbacks, God Can’t is overall a wonderfully provocative book that prods readers to examine their presuppositions about God in light of real-world evil and comforts readers with an emphasis on God’s nature of uncontrolling love as revealed in Jesus. This is an important task, and one for which Tom is highly gifted and equipped. Which is why I would strongly recommend this book to just about anyone, but especially to those who wrestle with trusting God in the midst of the ubiquitous evil in the world.