Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. He is a best-selling and award-winning author, having written or edited more than twenty-five books. A twelve-time Faculty Award-winning professor, Oord teaches at institutions around the globe, and is the director of the Center for Open and Relational Theology. To find out more about him or view more of his works, visit his website or the Center for Open and Relational Theology.
European Society for the Study of Science and Theology, Lyon, France. April 2018.
In this essay, Oord argues that we better sense of God and creation if God’s power is understood as immanent, in the sense that God cannot act as a sufficient cause and thereby control others, and God’s love is understood as transcendent, in the sense that God does not freely choose to love.
Theists commonly assume God’s power transcends creaturely power. Perhaps the primary way divine power transcends creaturely power is God’s ability to be a sufficient cause, guaranteeing divinely desired results. In this essay, I call this “controlling” power. In the minds of many, God transcends creatures by being capable of singlehandedly controlling others; creatures cannot control in this way.
Theists commonly think God’s love is immanent in relation to creaturely love. Divine love is immanent, in the sense that God can freely choose whether to love others. Those complex creatures capable of expressing love also freely choose whether to love others.
In contrast to these common views, I think we make better sense of God and creation if we reverse these views of divine transcendence and immanence. We should think God’s power is immanent, in the sense that God cannot act as a sufficient cause and thereby control others. And we should think God’s love is transcendent, in the sense that God does not freely choose to love. I explain what I mean by these reversals, and I point to the fruit such reversals can bring.
The Meanings of Transcendence and Immanence
Scholars apply widely diverse meanings to the words “transcendence” and “immanence” when used in relation to Creator and creatures. Some use the words to identify proximity or spatial connotations. God is said to transcend creation by being “above,” “beyond,” or “outside” it. And God is said to be immanent to creation by being “near,” “within,” or “present to” it.
I find the spatial references to transcendence and immanence unhelpful. Like most theists, I believe God is omnipresent. By this, I mean God is directly present to all existence, from the smallest to the most complex. So God is never spatially above, beyond, or outside creation. The spatial and proximity ways of thinking of God’s relation to creation are unhelpful.
I also follow the traditional view that God has no localized body. Like most theologians, I believe God is best understood as a universal, incorporeal spirit. Analogies to God as a universal spirit are always incomplete, but God has been compared to wind, breath, mind, soul, ether, gravity, and more. These words depict a deity who cannot be perceived with our five senses and yet can be causal. Believing God is incorporeal and omnipresent helps us understand why God is always within or present to the created order.
I believe we best use “transcendence” and “immanence” to describe ways God and creation differ from or are similar to one another. For as long as people have believed in God or gods, they have contemplated how God might differ (transcend) creation or be similar (immanent) to it.
Most thoughtful believers avoid saying God is entirely different (absolute transcendence) from creation, but some have embraced this view. Most also avoid saying God is entirely similar (absolute immanence) to creation. The absolute transcendence view leads to absolute apophatism, which I think is absolutely unbelievable. But absolute immanence leads to absolute anthropomorphism, which I think is absolutely idolatrous. The majority of theists place their views of God somewhere on the spectrum between absolute transcendence and absolute immanence.
Many who adopt the label “panentheism” work to carve a plausible middle way between the extremes. A common concern among self-identifying panentheists is that traditional or classical theologies err by describing God as too transcendent, especially underemphasizing divine omnipresence. Panentheism, however, is conceived in widely diverse ways. Scholars use the label to portray their understanding of how all things are “in” God. Unfortunately, the “en” in panentheism is easily thought to be in contrast to “out,” which leads to the spatial and proximity problems I noted earlier. In my attempt to bypass this common spatial problem panentheism carries with it, I coined the word “theocosmocentrism” to emphasize that both God and the created order must be central in our attempts to understand reality. A full explanation of theocosmocentrism is beyond the scope of this paper, but I have outlined its aspects in other writings.
A growing number of theists recognize the importance of identifying similarities between Godly love and creaturely love. If divine love is entirely different from creaturely love, statements about God’s love likely 1) are nonsensical, 2) make it impossible for creatures to know if they imitate divine love, and 3) place into question the claim that the imago dei has anything to do with love. Divine love cannot be entirely different from creaturely love if it is to make any sense. For those who take love to be central to understanding God and reality – which a number of theistic traditions support – getting clear on love seems crucial.
In my own work, I have offered a definition of love meant to account for love, both Godly and creaturely. I define love as acting intentionally, in response to others (including God), to promote overall well-being. When loving, God acts intentionally, in response to others (and Godself), to promote overall well-being. When they love, creatures do the same.
To say that the meaning of love is the same for both the Creator and creatures, is to say the meaning of love does not transcend creatures and apply only to God. But I do think divine love transcends creaturely love in other ways, including its mode, extent, adequacy, and more. For instance, God loves all creation, all the time. Creatures do not love all creation, all the time. In this sense, divine love transcends creaturely love. Divine love is perfectly adequate, because God loves from complete knowledge of what is possible to know. Such love transcends creaturely love, because creaturely love may or may not be adequate, being based on limited information. And so on.
My focus for this paper is on one particular element of divine transcendence pertaining to freedom. The majority of theists with whom I dialogue affirm an immanent conception of divine love that I believe is better regarded as transcendent. In other words, they think divine love is like creaturely love in this way, whereas I think it differs.
Most theists I encounter say God freely chooses to love. They argue that, like creatures, God can choose not to love, should God choose to do so. God's love is immanent in this respect, because creatures can also freely choose whether to love others. To many people, in fact, love requires freedom. So to them, saying God must love or necessarily loves is a contradiction.
By contrast, I think God must love and therefore necessarily loves. As I see it, love comes logically first in God’s nature, before God’s will and power. This means God does not freely choose to love; rather, it is God’s nature to love. I follow the essentialist tradition exemplified in theologians like Jacob Arminius and John Wesley who regard love as God’s foremost or primary attribute. In particular, I think divine love necessarily self-gives and others-empowers, and therefore God must express uncontrolling love. Unlike the creatures, the Creator’s nature is love.
I do not think divine love is necessary in all respects, however. We can believe God loves necessarily without thinking divine love is entirely devoid of freedom. In my view, God loves others by necessity, but God freely and contingently chooses what forms this love will take. WE might say God does not choose whether to love, but God does freely choose how to love. This view fits well in open and relational theologies that say God experiences the ongoing flow of time in a way analogous to how creatures experience it. God cannot know with absolute certainty how the present will unfold into the future, so although God must love, God freely chooses how to love in light of an open and uncertain future.
If God’s nature is love, which means God necessarily loves others, we see how this makes divine love transcendent in this important way. Creatures do not necessarily love, because they do not have eternal natures of love. In short, I propose we change from thinking God’s love is immanent by being entirely free to thinking God’s love is transcendent as a necessary expression of the One whose nature is love.
I encounter few theists today who embrace thoroughgoing theological determinism. To put it in the popular vernacular, most people don’t think God is in control, in the sense of controlling every event in the universe. Nearly every theist believes God is powerful, of course. But most affirm some form of creaturely agency, free will, or autonomy vis a vis God.
While many theists reject the view that God is controlling, it seems that most believe God retains the ability to control others and occasionally use it. For instance, God may control creatures or situations to do miracles or guarantee certain outcomes. God may use such controlling power at the end of the age, the eschaton. And so on.
Creatures do not have the capacity to control others and guarantee outcomes. Of course, creaturely causation impinges upon the agency, free will, or autonomy of others. But this impinging is not the same as controlling others as a sufficient cause. This means that many theists view God's power as transcendent when comparted to creaturely power. And even if God exerts controlling power sparingly or not even once since the creation of the universe from nothing, God essentially retains the ability to control others should God desire to do so.
While we ought to reverse our views of divine love from immanent to transcendent, we ought to reverse our view of divine power from transcendent to immanent. In terms of God’s power, it makes better sense to believe God does not have the ability to control others, in the sense of being a sufficient cause. Like creaturely power, God's power is inherently uncontrolling in this sense. When it comes to being uncontrolling, divine power is immanent not transcendent.
Of course, divine power can be transcendent in other senses. I personally prefer the word “almighty” to speak of God’s power, a word many biblical translators use when speaking of divine power. In fact, I think God is almighty in at least three senses. God is 1) mightier than all others, 2) the source of might empowering all others, and 3) the one who exerts might upon all others. Divine power transcends creaturely power in these three senses. But God can be almighty in these ways while necessarily expressing self-giving, others-empowering, and uncontrolling love.
In various books and articles, I have argued for the advantage in believing God’s love is inherently uncontrolling. Because love comes first logically in God’s nature, God’s power is shaped, constrained, or limited by love. We might say that because God’s love transcends creaturely love, God’s power is immanent in the narrow sense of being, like creaturely power, inherently uncontrolling. I believe this reversal of transcendence and immanence, while uncommon, is crucial for making sense of existence.
Six Reasons to Reverse Divine Transcendence and Immanence
I find numerous advantages to reversing divine transcendence and immanence in the ways I have suggested above. In the remainder of this paper, I note six briefly. The key insights informing these advantages are, as I stated above, that 1) love logically precedes power in God’s nature and 2) God’s love is necessarily self-giving, others-empowering, and uncontrolling. These key insights entail that God necessarily loves others and cannot control creatures or creation.
Each of the advantages I list below is spelled out briefly. A full explanation would require a book for each. But I offer the primary idea of each to show the fruit of affirming the transcendence of divine love and immanence of divine power.
Science and Theology
Reversing the common view of the immanence of divine love and transcendence of divine power helps solve longstanding tensions in science and religion research pertaining to methodological and metaphysical naturalism. A God who cannot control others cannot unilaterally determine creaturely events in ways that exclude creaturely causation. This God influences creatures and creation but cannot control them.
Because creaturely causes are always at play in any event or life, science always has a role to play in the work to explain existence. Scientific work is essential to understanding reality. But because God necessary expresses love and love is causal, theology always plays a role in the work to explain existence. Consequently, we need both science and theology to provide a full explanation of an event and existence in general.
The Problem of Evil
The reversals of transcendence and immanence I have proposed help us solve the problem of evil. A God who necessarily loves and cannot control is not culpable for failing to prevent the genuine evils of the world. This God consistently influences others – from the smallest to the greatest – in uncontrolling love.
A God in whose nature uncontrolling love comes logically first cannot prevent evil singlehandedly. This God necessarily self-gives and others-empowers, which means this God of uncontrolling love cannot fail to provide, withdraw, or override the freedom, agency, self-organization, or existence this God necessarily gives. We rightly blame evil on creaturely causes, whether those causes derive from creaturely free will, self-organization, agency, or chance.
Affirming the transcendence of divine love and immanence of divine power overcomes problems related to revelational inerrancy. Fundamentalists in both the Christian and Muslim traditions are prone to believe their religious texts are without error. They tend to think their texts were inspired by divine dictation, whereby human authors did not contribute to the revelation allegedly derived from God. Fundamentalists often link their claims of innerancy to the call for salvation found in these sacred texts.
A critical examination of these texts strongly suggests they possess errors of various types. Those who still regard them providing revelation typically offer dynamic, symbiotic, or co-creational theories of inspiration to account for the divine and creaturely influence they allegedly possess. But the question remains: If God desires to teach us the way of salvation, why wouldn’t God provide an inerrant, crystal-clear, unambiguous revelation of what that salvation entails?
Affirming the transcendence of divine love and immanence of divine power as I have described them helps us account for errant but inspirational revelation. If 1) knowing about God is important for salvation, 2) God lovingly wants to reveal such knowledge, but 3) God does not have controlling power, we can make sense the errant revelations religions possess. Because God cannot control others, God could not provide inerrant, crystal-clear, unambiguous text. And yet because of God’s loving influence, such texts can reveal important truths about God and salvation.
Averting Ecological Disaster
Affirming the views of divine power and love I have outlined provides motivation for taking seriously the ecological disaster our world is experiencing now and in the future. A God whose power is immanent in the sense of not being able to control creatures or creation needs our efforts to avert ecological disaster. And a God who necessarily loves all creation wants our cooperation toward that end. It is not an exaggeration to say the future of the planet depends, in part, upon a view of divine love and power like I have proposed!
Being Confident God Loves Us
The views of transcendence and immanence I have offered provide a psychological benefit many scholars have not seemed to notice. If we take the testimonies of many theists seriously, that psychological benefit is crucial in how they believe God relates to them. We might describe this in terms of the question of abandonment: Will God ever leave us, forsake us, or stop loving us?
The common view that God freely chooses to love and relate to us provides little to no psychological comfort. Those who think God’s will comes logically prior to love in the divine nature must assume God’s love for us is either arbitrary or enforced by powers outside God. I join those who reject the notion that powers outside God constrain God’s power. But I also reject the notion that God arbitrarily chooses to love creation.
Believing that God necessarily loves us by self-giving and others-empowering goes a long way toward reassuring us that God will never leave us, never forsake us, and never stop loving us. A God in whom love for others comes first logically is a God who cannot leave us, cannot forsake us, and cannot fail to love us. To do these would mean denying God’s own nature of love, which God cannot do. A God in whose nature love comes first logically will love us and creation no matter what!
Our Lives Have Meaning
Affirming the immanence of divine power helps us believe our loves have ultimate meaning. If God either always controls or will someday control to right all wrongs unilaterally, it’s difficult to imagine how our lives really matter. After all, anything we do can be ultimately reversed, overridden, or made null and void.
But if we think God is inherently uncontrolling, it makes sense to think our lives have ultimate meaning. What we do really matters. God works with what we do – good, evil, or indifferent – to transform, transmute, and transition creation to the best states possible. But our contribution makes a real difference to the present and future, especially for our own lives.
It matters that we reverse how we think God transcends creation or is immanent to it. I have argued in this essay that we should think love comes logically prior to will/power in God. In creatures, will logically precedes love, which means creatures may or may not choose to love. Because God’s nature is love, however, Godly love transcends creaturely love in this sense.
I have also argued that we should believe God cannot control others. In this sense, divine power is immanent to creaturely power, because creatures are also unable to act as sufficient causes. While God is almighty and divine power transcends creaturely power in other respects, we should believe God’s power is uncontrolling love.
I have also mentioned six major ways this reversal of transcendence and immanence makes a difference. It overcomes longstanding question in the science and religion dialogue; it solve the question of why a loving and powerful God doesn’t prevent genuine evil; it explains why we have revelatory texts with errors; it explains why God needs our actions to avert ecological disaster; it reassures us that God will never leave us, never forsake us, and never stop loving us; and it provides a way to affirm that our lives have ultimate meaning.