Pluriform Love: An Open and Relational Theology of Well-Being, Thomas Jay Oord, SacraSage Press, 2022, paper, $, ISBN: 9781948609579, 253 pages with notes, bibliography and index.
My mother told me that this was the very first bible verse I learned. I learned it to recite on Children’s Day. I couldn’t have been much more than two.
Throughout my ups and downs and ins and outs, as I grew up and progressed through my Christian faith, the thought, “God is love” never left me. The primacy of love after all is central to the Christian message.
But what does “God is love” mean?
For some it is simple, “God is love.” Period. That settles it, right? After all, did not God “so love the world that ‘he’ gave ‘his’ son?” As a Christian Universalist, is not my belief in universal reconciliation rooted in God’s love? It seems so simple, doesn’t it? God is love, that’s it. But is it?
According to Thomas Jay Oord, what the scriptures say about God’s love and our love in response to love is not as straightforward as many Christians think. In fact, the scriptural descriptions of love can be confusing, and often contradictory. As we read scripture, we can be excused for thinking that God’s love can be quite avaricious, not very loving at all. And our Western Christian theology, rooted in Classical Deism, confuses the matter all the more.
In Pluriform Love, Tom set out to present what he thinks is a much more robust and scripturally sound version of love. How do we make sense of love when the scriptures define love in so many ways, he asks? How can we have a definition that is definite, yet allows for the differences in meaning?
Tom believes that he has found the answer to that question, and he lays it out in Pluriform Love:
To love is to act intentionally, in relational responses to God and others, to promote overall well-being (p.28).
Once we have that definition, we can add the different definitions from scripture as qualifiers—agape love, eros love, philia love.
Pluriform Love begins with the premise that theologians and biblical scholars have relegated love to the margins, or have made it too narrow. This is especially true of Andres Nygren’s view of agape (chapter 3), which he feels has influence conservative Christian thinking on agape. In the scriptures Tom sees agape love as “promoting well-being” (chapter 4). God is “essentially loving.” God, he writes, doesn’t choose to love, but has to love. It is part of the divine essence. God has no choice but to love.
For eros Pluriform Love turns to Augustine (chap. 5). As Tom sees it, Augustine’s version of eros is not about loving others for their own sake, but loving, or using, them for God’s sake. God according to Augustine cannot love us. Such a view does not fit into Tom’s definition of love as promoting well-being. He sees the Hebrew word, ahavah, which embeds the idea of desire, as contradicting Augustine. Expanding upon Augustine’s idea of eros, Pluriform Love directly addresses Classical Theism premise that God is timeless, immutable (unchangeable), impassible (without passion and incapable of being influenced from the outside), and simple (God is one). If God is this, then God, according to Tom, is incapable of love, nor does God need of love. Tom concludes that while Augustine (and Classical deism, by extension) reject divine eros, eros nevertheless, plays a “crucial role in robust theologies of love (p. 139).”
While, I don’t disagree with how God in Classic Deism can appear to be an unloving God, I think Tom is perhaps misunderstanding Augustine. Augustine, as I understand his theology, found God’s love within the Trinity, where the love of the Father for the son, and the son for the father, is found in the Spirit. This is an eternal relational love, which I would think makes God’s relational love for, and love within, the world possible.
In chapter 7 Pluriform Love takes a broader look at Open and Relational Theology, particularly that of Clark Pinnock. In this chapter Tom grants that “Open and Relational Theology” is a big tent and not all in it agree. For Tom. “Open and Relational Theology” is a theology of love with Christ at its center (p. 151):
Jesus is the center of my Christian open and relational theology of love.
Jesus Christ is the focus of Christian faith. ‘In the beginning was the Word,’ writes the Apostle John, ‘and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’ (Jn. 1:3). ‘This Word became flesh’ – as Jesus of Nazareth – and “loved among us.” His life was glorious, John adds, full grace and truth (Jn. 1:14).
This is important in that it qualifies what Tom means when he speaks of Open and Relational Theology in terms of pluriform love. It is also important to understand the definition of “pluriform.” “Pluriform” means, existing in many different forms, yet consistent in essence.
In his discussion Tom introduces two concepts from his earlier works: “essential kenosis” and amipotence.
A charge often laid at the feet of “open and Relational” theologians is that such a theology leaves God impotent. Not so, say Tom. I love (pun intended) the word, amipotent. Ami refers to love, and “potent” to “having great power and influence.” God’s love is potent, but not controlling.
“Essential kenosis” is at the heart of his understanding of God. It is also his answer to the presence of evil. God who is love does not choose, but is limited by his very essence (amipotence). God, in Tom’s theodicy, cannot coerce, because love is noncoercive. This means that God responds to evil not with force, but with persuasion. God opposes evil, but needs us to participate in its eradication. “We can solve the primary dimensions of the problem of evil by saying God cannot prevent evil single-handedly, emphasizes with the hurting, works to heal, endeavors to bring good from bad, calls creatures to join in overcoming evil, and does not create evil (p. 173).
“Essential hesed” (chap 8.), referring to steadfast love, is explored in connection with philia. If I am understanding Tom correctly, he is saying, philia, which calls the “alongside of” love, although separate from essential hesed, exists because of God’s essential steadfastness (hesed). It is called “essential” because it suggests that “God always and necessarily loves creation, (p.175)” and therefor stands alongside relationally to bring about our well-being.
I say, “understanding correctly” because I got bogged down a bit when in the course of discussing essential hesed and philia, Tom turned to the question of the origin of evil. For him, the Classical premise that God created ex nihilo (out of nothing) makes God the creator of evil, or at the very least, able to do something about evil. Tom’s view is that God “loves and creates out of creation.” Personally, I don’t think saying God “loves and creates out of creation” solves the problem of evil. This is perhaps the major inadequacy of “Open and Relational Theology” as Tom presents it. The theology can explain why God can’t/doesn’t do anything about evil, but for me doesn’t fully address the source, and presence, of evil. I do think there is an answer, but whether God created ex nihilo, or not, does not provide the answer. Although I do agree with Tom that scriptures do not support creato ex nihilo.
I will grant that I may be missing something here. I do wish Puriform Love would have devoted a chapter of its own to evil, and had developed the concept of philia more.
One last comment on creato ex nihilo. Tom’s view that God “loves and creates out of creation” finds support in the Celtic Latins and Celtic Christianity (the roots of my speculative theological thinking) and dovetails nicely with Quantum Spirituality.
God’s love is pluriform (chap 9). It takes on many dimensions. In this chapter Tom fleshes out his theology of pluriform love. God, Tom reiterates, loves creation in at least three primary ways (p 220):
1. God acts for creation’s good, even when creatures harm themselves and others and even when they are unfaithful. God’s love expresses agape.
2. God acts for creations good when encountering its intrinsic value. God is an “artistic lover. God’s love expresses eros.
3. God loves by coming alongside of creatures in promoting the work of well-being. God empowers and seeks collaboration from creation for the common good. God is a loving friend. God’s love expresses philia.
Each of the three have embedded innumerable pluriform expressions.
Tom goes on to say that God’s love is relentless. It never punishes, always forgives. A loving God has no need of hell. If coercion is not part of this life, why then would it be part of the afterlife? Although a loving God cannot remove consequences for evil actions, a loving God will never give up, no matter how much we resist. Love for creation is the essential essence – the heart – of God.
Along with Pluriform Love, Tom graciously sent his earlier Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas (2021), and I did think about writing a review of that work first. What changed my mind however, was an email conversation I had with someone struggling with God’s love, in part because of their conservative Christian upbringing.
Although everyone can benefit by reading Pluriform Love, it’s intended audience (or so it seems to me) is the conservative Christian. After reading the work, the thought occurred to me that what Tom lays out in Pluriform Loveis pretty similar to what the average Christian in the pew thinks, but perhaps doesn’t know how to articulate it, or perhaps is afraid to express it out loud for fear of going against the scripture and doctrine. Pluriform Love, I believe is the answer to that dilemma.
Thank you, Tom, for providing this much needed work on love.
Thomas Jay Oord (PhD) directs the doctoral program in Open and Relation Theology at Northwind Theological Seminary. He also directs the Center for Open and Relational Theology.