Theology Tied Up in “Nots”

Thomas Jay Oord’s The Death of Omnipotence and Birth of Amipotence in Light of Charles Hartshorne’s Philosophy

A review from Donald Wayne Viney

Thomas Jay Oord is known for his defense of “open and relational theology” (the title of one of his books), which places him in the camp of openness theology. However, he can also easily lay claim to continuing the tradition of process-relational theism. I have said before that the later works of A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947) lit the spark of process theism, and Charles Hartshorne (1897-2000) fanned the flames, vigorously defending and developing the idea of a God in dynamic interaction with the world. Their somewhat different forms of theism were embedded in, and were an outgrowth of, wide-ranging, technically sophisticated, and scientifically informed metaphysical systems in which the category of process takes priority over thinghood. To use an analogy from medieval architecture: where process philosophy and theology are concerned, Whitehead and Hartshorne are like the two towers of Chartres cathedral—different in interesting ways but essential to the overall asymmetric beauty of the building. (I would be happy for Teilhardians to tweek the analogy.)

Oord’s dissertation—completed in 1999—was written under the direction of David Ray Griffin (1939-2022), one of the preeminent scholars of Whitehead and Hartshorne and an original thinker in his own right. Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki (b. 1933), a prominent name in the community of process thinkers, and Richard Rice (b. 1944), a founding figure in the openness theology movement, also sat on Oord’s committee. This stellar line-up was joined by Stephen T. Davis (b. 1940), well-known in analytic philosophy of religion. Oord’s dissertation developed and defended what he called “An Evangelical Process Theology of Love” The many books that he has published subsequently further extend various dimensions of a theology of love. The theme of divine love as it relates to God’s power comes to laser focus in the present book.[1]

A quote from Hartshorne neatly captures the central idea of Oord’s new book, The Death of Omnipotence and Birth of Amipotence. Hartshorne says, “We should not worship God because besides divine love there is also divine power. It is the love that explains the power, not vice versa.”[2] The other theme of Oord’s book which overlaps with Hartshorne’s philosophy is the conceptual confusions and pernicious effects of the concept of omnipotence. Oord’s thinking is in line with the title of Hartshorne’s Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (1984). The positive side of Oord’s case is to stress the conceptual and ontological primacy of divine love. For this, Oord introduces the word amipotence, a neologism I imagine Hartshorne would have endorsed.

Oord’s evangelical roots are apparent in his detailed attention to what the biblical authors say. He marshals the evidence against the claims that they espoused, or implied by their language, belief in omnipotence. The open(ness) secret: they didn’t. I recommend this chapter to anyone who would argue otherwise. It is well-known that the Septuagint translators gravitated towards less concrete depictions of God than what are present in the Hebrew, a point made by both Bruce Metzger and Robert Alter. Oord notes that it was Jerome’s Latin translation (the Vulgate) that introduced the word “omnipotence” into the text. Scholars like Harry Wolfson and Abraham Heschel denied that the immutable, impassible, and omnipotent deity of medieval theology is found in the Bible. Oord agrees.[3]

The chapter, “Death by a Thousand Qualifications” reminded me of chapter 25 of Aquinas’ Summa Contra Gentiles II. The angelic doctor lists numerous statements with which he agrees that begin, “God cannot . . .” God cannot do something contrary to the divine nature, such as dying, failing in knowledge, not being present, and being less than perfectly loving; God cannot do the logically impossible, such as making a circle with unequal radii; God cannot change the past, such as causing a woman never to have been seduced; At a more mundane level, God cannot do push-ups, ride a bicycle, or anything that requires a localized body. Medieval thinkers, Aquinas among them, almost invariably followed Philo of Alexandria in denying God’s ability to change or be changed. Oord challenges this immutability doctrine, a challenge that goes hand-in-hand with his affirmation that God is necessarily in give-and-take relationships with the creatures. When Oord lists all the things God cannot do, either according to classical theology or according to Oord’s own theology (see pgs. 70-72), one wonders if anyone really knows what “omnipotence” could possibly mean. One could say that theologies of omnipotence are tied up in “nots.” I was reminded of The Princess Bride where Vizzini keeps saying that things that actually happened are inconceivable; Inigo Montoya, replies, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” Oord does not think classical theology knows what the word “omnipotence” means.

Much of the difficulty with omnipotence is to explain the relation of divine and creaturely power. Hartshorne argued that there are states of affairs that no single individual can bring about, such as mutual love, mutual indifference, mutual hate, and the like. We say colloquially, it takes two to tango. Arguably, the “tango” takes two, even if one of the “dancers” is God. But the traditional idea was that somehow, God guarantees the dance steps “in cooperation” with the dancers themselves. This is the doctrine of the primary causation of God and the secondary causation of the creatures. Oord considers this a semantic muddle. Agency cannot be shared in this way. As Jules Lequyer wryly said, “I was so accustomed to thinking that God does not do everything since man does something!”[4] The usual analogies for the primary/secondary cause distinction fail miserably. Aquinas says that the same effect can be “wholly done” by a natural agent and by God, and then he gives a puzzling comparison: “just as the same effect is wholly attributed to the instrument and also wholly to the principal agent” (SCG III, ch. 70, para. 8). Yet, what comparison supports such a claim? If a musician plays a flute, neither the flute nor the musician, without the other, is wholly responsible for the effect; the same is true even if the musician made the flute. Other analogies also fare poorly: Are we God’s puppets? Are we clay pots shaped by a potter? Are we under a divine hypnotic spell? Are we pawns in a cosmic chess game? Do we people God’s dreams? Are we like characters in a play? Then we’re not genuine agents, or worse, not real individuals. In Lequyer’s words, “these imitations of life are the games of human genius.”[5]

Dispensing with omnipotence leads to a better question: How shall we think of divine power? Traditional theology took the idea of creating from creaturely examples, projected it onto God, but then emptied it of the elements in the creaturely cases that made them examples of creating. In effect, the claim was that God alone acts, and the creatures are merely acted upon. This is why Hartshorne maintained that “. . . the traditional idea of omnipotence was a pseudo-idea, not even coherent enough to be false”[6] The idea of divine impassibility is implicit in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo which pictures God as creating in one eternal act all of the space-time universe, including creaturely decisions. It is no wonder that theologians, in the attempt to avoid incoherence, had to “play the mystery card.” It is one of Oord’s central complaints: appeal to mystery is not, in itself, a bad thing, but when your theology doesn’t make sense, mystery is not a “get out of jail free” card. Oord rejects creation ex nihilo to preserve genuine agency in the creatures. 

For most medieval thinkers, the immutability of God became something like an axiom, or a theorem improperly deduced from divine perfection. Oord follows process metaphysics in adopting an ontology according to which both God and the creatures act and are acted upon by others—a modification of Plato’s “to act or to be acted upon” (Sophist, 247e). In order to balance change and changelessness in God, one can adopt the Hartshornean idea of a dipolar God. One must distinguish, on the one hand, the unchanging or eternal aspect of God, analogous to the stability of a person’s character, and on the other hand, God’s experiences, which exemplify that character but which are continually changing in creatively loving responses to the creatures. Oord’s name for the dipolar distinction is the “essence-experience binate” (p. 100). This distinction, which David Tracy called “Hartshorne’s Discovery,” retains what is best in traditional theology (i.e. some sense in which God is eternal and necessary) while avoiding its worst mistakes (i.e. denial of felt compassion for and interactions with the creatures).[7]

In his treatment of the philosophical problem of evil, Oord says that evil ends omnipotence. Some have argued that God permits evil without willing it. Ironically, Oord calls on John Calvin for the prosecution: permitting and willing are the same thing in a being with the power to unilaterally control what occurs (p. 90). Of course, Calvinists bite the bullet and believe in an all-determining God. In his “Personal Narrative,” Jonathan Edwards says that the doctrine of God’s absolute sovereignty had once seemed horrible to him, but eventually he found it “exceedingly pleasant, bright, and sweet.” That’s a non-starter for Oord, a deal-breaker. There’s nothing bright or sweet about arbitrary power. Moreover, petty tyrants and authoritarian regimes appeal to an all-determining God, or they quote Paul (Rom. 13:1-2), as an endorsement of their legitimacy; Oord is particularly perceptive on this question (pp. 89-90). In fairness to Edwards, he became convinced of the compatibility of human freedom and divine determinism. For some of us, however, Edwards’ change of heart sounds too much like a theological version of Stockholm syndrome—identifying with one’s abuser.

Voltaire said that those who struggle with the problem of evil are like convicts who play with their chains.[8] If Oord and Hartshorne are correct, the chains are at least partly forged by the convicts themselves, and the leash that keeps them imprisoned is omnipotence. Once admit multiple freedom in the creatures, then no single agent, divine or otherwise, determines what happens. In order to preserve a semblance of omnipotence in relation to the freedom of the creatures, it is tempting to speak of divine self-limitation. Perhaps God sets limits to God’s-self by endowing some of the creatures with free will. Oord sees this for the confusion that it is. It is one thing to value freedom, but it is not loving to fail to prevent preventable evil (cf. pp. 96-97). I add this argument: having free creatures with which to interact is in no sense a limitation on divine power, for the creatures’ freedom does not prevent God from doing anything that God could do without them. On the contrary, it is more a question of self-augmentation than self-limitation, for it takes more skill to interact with free beings than with unfree beings.[9]

Philosophers who proposed free will as a partial answer to the problem of evil usually considered non-human nature to be completely deterministic and therefore malleable to God’s will. For reasons unrelated to theology, process thought posits an element of creative self-determination in every concrete singular. Whitehead and Hartshorne spoke of nature as “alive” in the sense that every entity, in some fashion, has both physical and experiential characteristics, not dualistically, but inseparably in a psycho-physical whole. Long before Thomas Nagel asked what it is like to be a bat, Hartshorne was asking what it is like to be a whale, a gorilla, a dog, a bird, a honeybee, a paramecium, an amoeba, a cell, even an atom.[10] Hartshorne’s Born to Sing (1973) is a detailed empirical study and argument for the enjoyment that oscines take in singing. To be sure, large segments of the universe appear lifeless, but from the billion-years’ perspectives of astronomical and geological time-scales, the universe is continually producing surprisingly new forms of matter, life, and mind in a process of complexification where novelty seems as metaphysically basic as order (an expression I borrow from Don Crosby[11]).

Because God’s power is exerted over others with some degree of power, God cannot singlehandedly prevent evil. According to Oord’s “material-mental monism” (p. 132)—also known as psychicalism or panexperientialism—the “others” includes creatures of varying levels of activity, from the nearly exact repetition of form at the subatomic realm through the evolutionary scale of sentient creatures with higher forms of mentality. One may partner with God in the struggle against our worst demons, but chance and misfortune are inevitable. In Hartshorne’s pithy phrase, “It is no accident that there should be accidents.”[12] Even God must experience tragedy, when there are competing and incompatible goods, or when opportunities for well-being are missed. For this reason, Oord cannot offer the consolation that everything happens for a reason—what Kate Bowler calls “a lie I’ve loved.”[13] He can, however, say that anything can become a reason for promoting overall well-being for all creatures on the planet, as Oord’s definition of “love” requires. This is the generalized meaning of what Christians should mean when they pray “Thy will be done.” In Oord’s homely expression, God works to squeeze good from bad (p. 104). The flip side of misfortune is serendipity, revelations of the depths of life’s joys. According to Oord’s theology, God is the ground of hope against the forces that would overwhelm us.

For Oord as for Hartshorne, the one non-negotiable divine attribute is love. Both philosophers reject the extreme forms of apophatic or negative theology (i.e. the claim that we can know what God is not, but not what God is)—another aspect of theology that is tied up in “nots.” To be sure, the divine actuality is unfathomable, but the mystery is in trying to plumb the depths of something positive, of a beauty, goodness, and love without limits. Oord makes no appeal to an afterlife—at least in this book—but he accepts what Hartshorne called contributionism, the idea that our lives, including all that we have been, are welcomed into the unblinking divine memory. It is not the traditional form of survival or immortality, but neither is it the annihilation of what we have been. If the psychologist Andras Angyal (1902-1960) is correct that we live best by living in the fond regard of others, then living forevermore in the memory of a loving God is no small thing.[14]

Hartshorne did not self-identify as Christian, as Oord does, although it is clear from everything he wrote that the liberal Christian atmosphere in which he was raised shaped his philosophy. As for Jesus, Hartshorne admired him but did not worship him. Another difference with Oord, is that Hartshorne was friendlier to David Hume’s argument against believing in miracles than Oord seems to be. Oord wishes to leave conceptual space for the reality of miracles, but one must look to chapter 8 of his book The Uncontrolling Love of God for his most nuanced discussion of the topic. It is not clear to me how close Oord is to Hartshorne’s panentheism, that God includes the universe in a way distantly analogous to how a person includes his or her body. Hartshorne spoke of the world as God’s body. Oord speaks of God as “a universal but incorporeal Spirit of love” (p. 149). However, Oord also says, echoing the book of Acts, “In amipotence we all live, move and have our being” (p. 141). Furthermore, Oord’s espousal of the dual character of all concrete singulars, if applied to God, implies that God is, in some fashion, also physical or material.

Oord does not specifically address atheism in his book, except obliquely, as when he says “An omnipotent God does not exist; we have reasons to think an uncontrolling God does” (p. 115). Or again, “What is excellent and worthy of praise has God as its source and creatures as contributors” (p. 142). Of course, these are statements, not arguments, but in a book specifically focused on the concept of omnipotence and its defects one does not expect much by way of arguments for theism. However, at the end of the book, after Oord has explained the idea of amipotence at length, one may ask questions like: “Why bother with God?” “Aren’t the empirical facts the same whether we affirm an amipotent God or no God at all?” “If so, why not dispense with God and simply be life-affirming in the name of love?”

Hartshorne wrote extensively on these questions, and perhaps Oord will turn to them in later works. My own dumb sense of things is that people are more likely to be led to atheism by naïve anthropomorphisms or toxic God-concepts than by a failure to offer arguments for God’s existence. If there is any truth in this, then it cannot be unavailing to discover that “God” can be given a meaning consistent with our highest ideals. By making a spirited case against omnipotence and for amipotence, Oord does a valuable service to the kind of process or open and relational theism that Hartshorne and others have defended. In this way, Oord finds himself in good company and he does a valuable service recovering what has been lost by theologies that allow divine power to eclipse divine love.

[1] Thomas Jay Oord, The Death of Omnipotence and Birth of Amipotence (SacraSage, 2023).

[2] Charles Hartshorne, Creative Experiencing: A Philosophy of Freedom, edited by Donald W. Viney and Jincheol O (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011), p. 7.

[3] For Hartshorne’s comments on biblical ideas see his Insights and Oversights of Great Thinkers: An Evaluation of Western Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), pp. 72-73.  

[4] Translation of Works of Jules Lequyer, Donald W. Viney, trans., (Lewiston, New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1998), p. 98.

[5] Translation of Works of Jules Lequyer, p. 140.

[6] Charles Hartshorne, “A Philosophy of Death” in Hetzler and Kutscher, eds., Philosophical Aspects of Thanatology, v. II, MSS Information Corporation, 1978, p. 86.

[7] David Tracy, “Analogy, Metaphor, and God Language: Charles Hartshorne,” The Modern Schoolman 62/4, May 1985, p. 259.) Because Whitehead spoke of God as a nontemporal actual entity and did not clearly affirm successive temporal experiences in God, the “discovery” is Hartshorne’s.

[8] Voltaire, Dictionnaire Philosophique, article on “Bien (Tout Est),” (Paris: GF-Flammarion, 1964), p. 71.

[9] Hartshorne spoke of divine voluntary self-limitation in his dissertation, but thereafter he only referred to the natural limits of having the power to create in a context where there are other creators. See Hartshorne, An Outline and Defense of the Argument for the Unity of Being in the Absolute or Divine Good (Harvard, 1923), p. 29.

[10] Donald Wayne Viney and George W. Shields, The Mind of Charles Hartshorne: A Critical Examination (Anoka, Minnesota: Process Century Press, 2020), p. 96.

[11] Donald A. Crosby, Novelty (Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books, 2005).

[12] Charles Hartshorne, Creative Synthesis and Philosophic Method (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Press, 1970), p. 47.

[13] Kate Bowler, Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I’ve Loved (New York: Random House, 2018).

[14] See especially, chapter 2 of Angyal’s Neurosis and Treatment: A Holistic Theory, edited by Eugenia Hanfmann and Richard M. Jones, Foreword by Abraham H. Maslow (New York: Viking Press, 1965). Angyal’s account of the so-called struggle for existence is brilliant, and constitutes an ignored resource of process-relational philosophy and theology. The struggle, he insists, includes a struggle for meaning. “To be, to exist on this level is to mean something to someone else” (p. 18). I learned of Angyal’s work from my father, Wayne Viney. 

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