Book Review: “God Can’t” by Thomas Jay Oord

(This is my first book review, so bear with me.)

I juggled a couple books at the end of 2020, and this was the most challenging, mainly for the sheer fact that I had to get past the implications of the title to even begin to hear what the author was saying – that God isn’t omnipotent.

I had been following Oord on social media for a while before taking the bait and biting into his book. He is a college professor and a Nazarene minister who has a PhD in Religion among others degrees and honors. He comes off as an earnest person who sincerely wants people to understand his view, and understand that it comes from a place of love, specifically from his understanding of God as a necessarily-loving entity. This book is a longform version of his position. It is written in a mostly conversational style that is easy to understand, and doesn’t get overly bogged down in esoteric philosophy or theology, although it easily could have.

Oord is an Open and Relational Theologian, which basically means he believes we experience/understand God through a two-way relationship with God (that’s the relational part). To put it as colloquially as I can, this relationship is what makes the world go ’round. God is present in every moment, urging us to make choices that will create the most love-filled future. God doesn’t force our hand, we have free will, and therefor the future is “open” – full of possibilities to cooperate with the loving God (or not.) [Maybe not the best description of Open and Relational theology, but it’ll have to do.]

Following from this theological stance, Oord’s major premise is that a loving God would not allow evil if God could prevent it. It is from these premises that Oord moves toward the titular conclusion – God can’t single-handedly prevent evil; physical beings must interact with God in a way that promotes good in the physical world. At the same time we cannot be said to be in a free-willed and loving relationship with God if God forces/coerces us to choose what is good/loving.

But the book’s raison d’etre is not to posit a relational theology. The author presents a variety of evidence and logic for his claim in an orderly yet compassionate, dare I say pastoral, way. Oord’s purpose lies in the book’s subtitle: “How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils.” He is attempting to formulate an answer to the question, “If God is good and loving, how can there be so much evil and bad in his creation?” In fact, it was understanding this aspect of Oord’s mission that lured me into reading it. Oord wants to give people who have experienced hurt a way to not blame God – a way to see that God is loving and does love them. He goes through great lengths to show that God wants us to be happy/experience love, but because of a complex matrix of wills, both of humans and other “creatures/entities,” evil happens.

I didn’t get the book because I needed to understand why God allowed something (bad) to happen to me. I have had a pretty good life, so run-of-the-mill Christianity works for me. But I acknowledge that this puts me in the position to be a person who is more empathetic and helpful to others. To be quite honest, for myriad reasons, I need to be better at understanding the deep pain others experience. This book gave me tools for understanding what others experience and the reasons that many who have been hurt have such a hard time with the nature of God that is commonly taught (in American Evangelicalism, and I assume elsewhere.) It gave me tools to interact with others in affirming ways.

I can’t say that I agree with all the details of Dr. Oord’s premises and conclusions in the book; I am still at odds with many of them in fact. But I fully embrace his larger mission of helping those who hurt to see God as the source of love and healing, not evil and harm.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has run out of reasonable answers to their pain and doesn’t want to the add the pain of losing fellowship with God; to anyone tired of the same old Christian clichés that are well meant but don’t always help; and to people like me who want to help others, but also don’t want to to more harm than good.

The book is full of ideas that will make one struggle with the author, but hopefully also with one’s faith in a productive way. It definitely takes an open mind to even hear what is being said, because at face value it seems counter to so much of what most of us have been taught about God’s omnipotent power.

I hope I did his arguments justice, but definitely urge you to read or listen to them for yourself. Both God Can’t and its follow up, God Can’t Q&A, (which answers some of the most asked questions the author received after publishing the first book) can be found in paperback, e-reader, and audio format.

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