A Response to Essential Kenosis

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“How do we know that Adam and Eve were not from Louisiana?”

“If they were they would have left the apple and eaten the snake.”

The story of the fall, Adam and Eve’s disobedience in the Garden of Eden, is a story theologians have wrestled with for centuries. Christians have wrestled with how could a good and loving God can allow bad things to happen. For many Christians this mythical, but true story, is the genesis for how creation and Creator are in an imperfect relationship. 

This past weekend Dr. Thomas J. Oord was the keynote speaker at the Misfits Theology Conference. Dr. Oord also preached at the church I serve as priest. I found Dr. Oord to be engaging, thoughtful, and pastoral.

Priests in the Episcopal Church are required to complete Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). The purpose of CPE is to provide real world experience of pastoral care, generally in a hospital setting, as an action/reflection setting for pastoral theology. I can remember vividly sitting with a woman who had her 3rd miscarriage and her cries of why to God. 

Dr. Oord outlined a few common responses to evil:

  • It is all part of God’s plan.

  • Everything happens for a reason.  

  • God needed another angel.

  • God is teaching you a lesson.

I have heard these said by people in the midst of crisis and I find theses responses unhelpful in the midst of deep pain. In his book “Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart” Dr. Kenneth Haugk warns against the human temptation to say something in the midst of pain to “make it better.” In reality, most of our attempts will fall flat in the midst of tragedy. Haugk says the best thing we can do is sit with the person in their pain. Rather we often are like Job’s friends offering explanations. 

Dr. Tony Baker, my theology professor in seminary, said that explanations of evil are the soil for heresy. In other words our anxiety about explaining evil leads us to say things we otherwise would not say about God because we feel the need to say something.

Oord argues the number one reason people are atheists is because the traditional answers for why evil exists are unfilling and incomplete. Let me say that I agree that many of the answers to evil and pain are unfilling. The prevalent and operative theology of contemporary evangelical and charismatic Christians make faith about managing God and makes God like a vending machine. I too find this image of God a false God. And so he is trying to do offer pastoral application and theology to something that causes all of us to wrestle with meaning.

Oord belongs to a school of theology called Process Theology. Process Theology denies the historical teaching of the church that God created out of nothing aka “creation ex nihlo.” Process theology denies that God is omnipotent or all powerful in the sense that God can coerce rather God can influence. God is developing and changing, this stands in contrast with traditional theological models which say God is unchanging. Process theology also believes that God is dependent on creation, hence Oords final argument that God needs us to fight evil.

As one orthodox theologian wrote in a book review, Dr. Oord’s God is “a not-so-powerful Deity who cannot be blamed for the ills of the world.”

Oord also rejects the appeal to mystery in explaining evil. We do not understand God’s ways and therefore sometimes an explanation is not possible. He describes this argument as analogous to a trump card in a card game. Basically it ends discussion rather than encourages discussion. 

Instead he suggests something called “essential kenosis” to explain the existence of evil and pain. This argument basically says that God cannot stop evil singlehandedly because God’s love is an uncontrolling love. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians Paul said that Jesus emptied (kenosis) himself in becoming human and there is a range of debate about what things means that I am not going to get into here. But Oord will say this denial of power is essential to the character of God and so God is unable to exercise power in the world. 

This idea that God can’t do something is shocking for some. As Dr. Oord notes there are places in scripture where it is said that God can’t do something i.e. lie. Obviously God can’t make 2+2=60 nor can God make a circle a square.

Alister McGrath says any discussion of God’s power must be modified by the “Christian understanding of the divine nature of God.” For example Aquainas says that God can not sin. Because for Aquinas God’s omnipotence does not include sin because sin is against God’s nature. Oord would say God’s inability to act is an example of God’s nature.

I am still thinking through my thoughts on essential kenosis. And I have to separate my criticisms of process theology and whether essential kenosis makes sense apart from process theology. 

But a few things I want to affirm. I do not subscribe to a micromanaging God who is constantly playing chess with the pieces He created to get the best outcome possible. Nor do I believe in a God that is absent from creation. I agree with Oord that much of what we attribute as miracles may in fact not be a miracle but luck or fortune. I also believe that we are to confront evil when and where we can.

But one place I strongly disagree with Oord is his denial of mystery as a way of explaining evil and suffering.

For Oord appeals to mystery are a theological lazy explanation when all other explanations fall apart. This, for me, is the weakest part of Oord’s theory. I do not know how appeals to mystery is any more of a trump card than the argument that “God can’t stop evil.” Mystery in the theological tradition is not a mystery to solve, like it was an episode of Scooby-Doo. Mystery is part of the wisdom tradition which reminds us of our limitations. Historically mystery is a partial revelation of something that cannot be known until later. Dorothy Sayers and GK Chesterton are two recent examples of theologians who write mysteries. They write mysteries not because they feel that God is a case to solve, but a point of reflection for how we live in a world in which we do not understand everything. 

I also believe he leaves too much room for the human component to respond to evil. Oord relies on humans to do the right thing to address evil. All of this makes sense within a process framework. But I think history shows that humans are often willing to make peace with evil to suit their own ends or we only recognize the evil after the fact.

I want to turn to Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. His landmark book “The Doors of the Sea” is the single best book on pain and suffering that I have read. If you went to a doctor and were diagnosed with a life threatening disease hearing why you got the disease might be helpful, but in the end what you need to know is that you can beat the disease, and this is what Hart attempts to do.

In the face of tragedy secularists ask Christians, “where is your God?’ In the movie Forrest Gump there is a scene where Forrest and Lt. Dan are fishing and Lt. Dan asks Forrest when is this God of yours going  to show up.

Hart believes that open theism and process theology is an incoherent way of understanding God and a warm fuzzy way of explaining away evil. And we end up with something that is an incomplete being and doesn’t answer or address our deep questions. 

He says that all explanations for why bad things happen are incomplete. And I think on this point Hart would say that Oord’s Essential Kenosis to explain evil and suffering is another example of an incomplete explanation. 

For Hart the answer is not so much why, but what significance does pain and suffering have? Ultimately because Jesus in his death and resurrection has defeated sin and death or as Hart says, 

“the incarnate God enters “this cosmos” not simply to disclose its immanent rationality, but to break the boundaries of fallen nature asunder, and to refashion creation after its ancient beauty — wherein neither sin nor death had any place.”

Hart would say that God permits that which He does not will. He writes, 

“We are to be guided by the full character of what is revealed of God in Christ. For, after all, if it is from Christ that we are to learn how God relates himself to sin, suffering, evil, and death, it would seem that he provides us little evidence of anything other than a regal, relentless, and miraculous enmity: sin he forgives, suffering he heals, evil he casts out, and death he conquers. And absolutely nowhere does Christ act as if any of these things are part of the eternal work or purposes of God. … God may permit evil to have a history of its own so as not to despoil creatures of their destiny of free union with him in love, but he is not the sole and irresistible agency shaping that history according to eternal arbitrary decrees. 

The driving force for orthodox theology is the infinite beauty and goodness of God. Evil and sin are not tools used by a loving God to demonstrate the beauty of salvation rather they are things that blind us to God’s reality. Evil and sin is merely a parasite and has no purpose.  As Hart goes on to say:

Ours is, after all, a religion of salvation; our faith is in a God who has come to rescue His creation from the absurdity of sin and the emptiness of death, and so we are permitted to hate these things with a perfect hatred. For while Christ takes the suffering of his creatures up into his own, it is not because he or they had need of suffering, but because he would not abandon his creatures to the grave. And while we know that the victory over evil and death has been won, we know also that it is a victory yet to come, and that creation therefore, as Paul says, groans in expectation of the glory that will one day be revealed. Until then, the world remains a place of struggle between light and darkness, truth and falsehood, life and death; and, in such a world, our portion is charity.

For Hart explanations of evil are always going to be unsatisfying, what we really need to know is that the evil we experience will not have the final word.  In the face of evil we see not God’s purpose but God’s enemy.