What is Relational Theology?

January 13th, 2011 / 24 Comments

Many Christians find the ideas and language of relational theology helpful. But many also appreciate relational theology without really being clear about what it is. Misunderstandings emerge.

As they read the Bible, Christians frequently encounter relational theology’s ideas and language. Unfortunately, however, conventional Christian theologies have sometimes ignored relational ideas and language. The conventional theology that results is sometimes impractical and nonsensical.

The Bible describes the activities and nature of a relational God. God created “in the beginning” and invited creatures to “bring forth” others in creative activity. God’s interactions with Adam and Eve portray God as relational. From the beginning, God instructs, expects, and responds to creatures – all of which are relational activities.

The Bible tells us God makes covenants with Israel and all creation. God’s covenant making demonstrates God’s relationality. Because God is relational, sinful behavior makes God angry. But positive responses and ongoing relationship deepens the relational friendship God shares with creatures. Biblical authors repeatedly proclaim that a God of steadfast love never gives up on the relationship God initiates and seeks to develop.

In Jesus Christ, the relational God is specially incarnated. In him, we have the fullest revelation of God as relational. Jesus teaches that God is our Abba (Father), an intimately relational description. God calls us to enter into a mutually loving relationship – what Jesus announces as the greatest commandment. Jesus reinforces Old Testament themes about the importance of love relations. Christians are commanded to love believers and unbelievers, friends and enemies, the near and dear as well as the stranger.

The Christian community emerging soon after God raised Jesus from the dead was Holy Spirit empowered. This budding community emphasized from its inception the importance of interrelatedness. As the Church, they ate together and shared things in common. They worshipped and prayed together. They shared the Lord’s Supper as a community. Christians embarked as the Church on a give-and-receive mission of relational love.

Core Ideas of Relational Theology

If God created a relational universe and relational people, it should come as little surprise that recent developments in science, philosophy, and culture reveal the interrelatedness of all existence. Relationality is present at the quantum level. It profoundly shapes personal and social levels of existence. And relational perspectives influence scientific research of the distant edges of our cosmos.

What makes relational theology distinct is its general approach to thinking about God’s interaction with creation. At its core, relational theology affirms two key ideas:

1.     God affects creatures in various ways. Instead of being aloof and detached, God is active and involved in relationship with others. God relates to us, and that makes an essential difference.

2.     Creatures affect God in various ways. While God’s nature is unchanging, creatures influence the loving and living Creator of the universe. We relate to God, and creation makes a difference to God.

Of course, those who embrace relational theology typically embrace other theological ideas too. For instance, many think God’s primary attribute is love, and many believe God’s chief desire is that people love others as themselves. Most think God relates within Trinity, and Jesus Christ best reveals God’s relational love. Most think God and creatures are genuinely free, at least to some degree. Most emphasize the importance of relationships in the Church, outside the Church, and relationships with all creation. Most think relational categories are central to Christian ethics and should be guides to get along with others – both human and nonhuman – on our planet. The list goes on.

People interpret variously what the two main ideas of relational theology entail. Because of these diverse interpretations, relational theology is like a big umbrella idea under which various theological alternatives reside. We might illustrate the umbrella like this

Relational Theology

 

Many Missional theologies Many Arminian &Holiness theologies Most Feminist/or Womanist theologies Most Open  theologies  Most Trinitarian      theologies Most Process theologies Most Wesleyan theologies Many Liberation/or Postcolonial theologies Other theologies

 

Some people adopt one theological alternative but reject another under the relational umbrella. For instance, some people adopt Trinitarian theology as the primary way they think about Christian theology but reject Process theology. Others embrace both Trinitarian and Process theologies. Or, for instance, some feminist theologians do not identify as Arminian. Others do. A person need not embrace all theologies under the umbrella.

It is also important to note that some theologians embrace a number of theological traditions simultaneously. For instance, a person might say she is Wesleyan, liberation, process, and Trinitarian. Another person might say he is Arminian, missional, and open. Still others might embrace one theology and not another listed above. For instance, a person might be Process, emergent, and Pentecostal. Many other combinations exist.

Confusion sometimes emerges when people identify relational theology with personalities or character traits we might consider “relational.”  People who are friendly, sociable, or highly empathetic do not necessarily embrace the ideas of relational theology. Of course, we usually hope people develop adequate social sensibilities. But a relational theologian is not automatically an expert at relating to other people!

To the extent that Christians seek to be Christlike, however, relational theology can encourage loving interactions and character traits that promote positive relationships. We best understand the Apostle Paul’s command to “imitate God, as dearly loved children, and live a life of love as Christ loved us…” (Eph. 5:1, 2), for instance, in relational terms. Those who consistently heed Paul’s counsel develop into the kind of people we call “virtuous” or “saints.”

We could say much more about relational theology. Here’s a link to a nice introduction to relational theology, including how this view thinks about various issues and doctrines.

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Comments

Jeff Clarke

Very helpful, Tom. I especially appreciate the link between relational theology and its implications in real life situations. It’s very true – we are all called to ‘imitate’ God in His character and love.

Thanks.


Dave G

Marshall McLuhan wrote, “We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.” I think I can rephrase it for my sense of this topic, “we shape our theologies, thereafter our theologies shape us.”

What we think about God and God’s relationship with us is formative to say the least. I think it is vital to develop theologies that foster the best of what it means to be a human created in the image and likeness of God.

Having a God that is relational is an important first step to a better understanding of prayer and more importantly to help us become more like Christ.

Thanks Tom


Thomas Jay Oord

Catherine Keller asked that I post this response…

Hi Tom.

Good to hear from you in the newish year. And great to check out your blog, which I’ll pass on to some students.

The essay is very handy, and indeed timely: I’m becoming aware of the widening viability of the term ‘relational.’ When I first used it in my book, Broken Web, I was accused (by John Hick) of coining an awkward adjective…

You might want to make more explicit the ecological importance of relational theology—and also the emphasis upon the constituent relations between creatures—under that graphic wider tent of yours.

And you are probably aware of Polkinghorne’s new anthology, linking the natural sciences to trinitarian relationalism.

Catherine Keller


Curtis

Tom, I think I’m gonna find a way to have this printed on a card I can carry in my wallet for all those times I am asked to explain relational theology. grin


Donald Minter

Well done Tom.  I ‘think’ you have done a marvelous job of expanding this ‘umbrella’ concept that I am hearing over and over again from lots of folks around the country, almost a mantra if you will.  I have suggested elsewhere that pretty soon the ‘umbrella’ of theology will include just about anyone who affirms anything, and you have beautifully set the stage for the idea that we can pick and choose those aspects of theology that we like and ignore the others…

I am anxious to hear from some of the umbrella makers if there are any guidelines to the breadth of the ‘umbrella’.

Well done piece!


Clinton Combs

In many ways, what you call relational mirrors the historical turn found in 19th century theology. During the time during which the Hebrew Bible was being told (and eventually written) the Israelites experienced God in narrative terms: a God who does things, interacts with them, makes compacts, is pleased, and is displeased.

When this Jewish narrative theology starts to be expressed in the Greek language, it mixes with Greek thought. A key Greek notion is that perfection is static. Therefore, this static notion is transferred to the attributes of God. (It remains in Hartshorne’s image of an unchanging primordial nature of God.)

This notion of an immutable God persists in much of medieval theology, and even in Catholic theology today.

To some extent, 19th century theology revived the earlier narrative theology of the Hebrew scriptures, but, as with Hegel, it often became hierarchical and teleological—that is to say, that history was going some place better (and it just happens to be pointing to where we are.)

Process-relational theology generally lacks this Hegelian directionality and the exalting of one’s own position. With Hartshorne, the ‘static perfect God’ remains in the primordial nature, and the ‘changing, experiencing God of the Hebrew scriptures and the incarnation in time’ remains in the consequent nature of God.

But is this where Whitehead ended up? A God of two halves—one a concession to Hebrew tradition and the other to Greek thought? Or is this more than a concession to two competing ideas. Is there a metaphysical tension between an unchanging world of Value and a changing world of Activity? Is this tension the ultimate relation that takes place both in God and in all persons as well as between God and others? I think so.


Derek Flood

Great post Tom! I’m excited to see that you are working on a book on this, as this is an area of interest in my own work as well.

One thing I would be interested in seeing you address is the difference between the idea of 1) interpersonal relationships and 2) impersonal connectivity (relatedness) of objects and forces. Your example of quantum physics for instance seems to be #2, while your work with its focus on love would fall into #1. I think a lot of theology that identifies as “relational” is in fact not about personal relationship (#1), but instead about impersonal connectedness (#2), whereas many theologies that do not identify as “relational” are nevertheless deeply so in the personal sense of the term (#1). Two examples of this would be virtue ethics and the Orthodox notion of theosis (“sanctification” in Wesleyan lingo).


Rita D. Sherma

Thank you, for a succint and well explained article. I concur with Catherine Keller on the significance of noting the deep implication of relational theology for reflection and action on ecology. I also hope that you will extend the application of relational theology to the “theology of religions.” How do we “relate” to others who do not believe (or experience the Divine) in the same way as we do, and yet exhibit those very qualities of love that we are called to evince when we embrace relational theology?


Bo Sanders

Curtis – Think BIGGER! What about a laminated tri-fold ?

If you figure out how to print ‘em, sign me up!  In fact, we could do a relational pyramid scheme to get the word out there wink

(confession: I’m in Claremont. I have a built in advantage for racking up ‘converts’.)

Just having a little fun… Tom – thank you SO much for this.  I can’t wait for the book!
From a charismatic Wesleyan Process emergent, Thank You.


Vaughn Baker

Tom:
Loved the umbrella image—could have used it in my doctoral thesis which I just submitted to smu and unisa.  I am utterly convinced that a timeless God (as opposed to a time-ful God) cannot be the God of Missio Dei!  A missionary God must be a temporal God.


Brian Clark

Thanks for a helpful umbrella to shelter under. 

I think of two things here: First, I’ve hung out with Pentecostals just enough to know that a truly vast number of them, who are very ardent and very “relational” in their theology in many ways, are not in fact Trinitarian.  They are “Jesus only” Pentecostals.  So, though the modern “Trinitarian” theology works for me, and for many of us these days as a relationally driven model of God, we have to stay “open”, I believe, to hearing from Pentecostal voices who can’t “relate” to it.  It would be far too easy to shut the door on them, thus cutting ourselves off from a huge portion of the living Church.

I’d say that, in part, because one reason for the need to talk about Relational Theology in the West comes from our Millenia-long separation from our Eastern brethren and sistren, not to mention other diverse and ancient varieties of Christianity we usually ignore or vaguely associate with what the Western Church termed “heresies” like Arianism, or Pelagianism, or Nestorianism, etc. 

I suppose that is a call to “keep relational theology relational” by recognizing that we can cheerfully, even insistently, practice theological forms and themes that reverberate with us, without alienation from other theologies and communities whose ways we find completely wrong-headed or utterly baffling.  Right now, we Western Christians are quickly becoming a shrinking minority of the world’s Christians, soon to be outnumbered by those Jesus Only Pentecostals from other parts of the world that I mentioned at the start.  The theological world we now must coexist within is at least as strange and wild and historically specific as any we can find in the past, and that is really saying something.


John W. Dally

David G. wrote. “’Marshall McLuhan wrote, ‘We become what we behold. We shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us.’”

This is a very important statement. Too many times I have seen a theology developed from reason or inspiration and then applied to living. People use an Aristotelian approach; they come up with an idea or theory then seek scriptural or philosophical sources to validate the theory.  Others used inspiration, the Platonic approach, and apply it having faith that it will bear out as valid.  The issue is that God is who God is.  (I am what I am).  Our objective is to try to discover God’s character, nature, and values then apply them to our interrelationship with God.  In other words, we must begin with God.

I favor the relational approach because it is before our very eyes. From the relationships between man and woman to parent and child to community and then society, even from humanity to creation, we see connectedness, relationship. Relationship is how we exist.  Being made in the image of God we can then back track to see that relationship is a character and nature of God. 

I have used the idea of relationships between men and women to explain the relationship between God and humanity. My professor at PLNU, Dr. Frank Carver, pointed to marriage as a source of understanding God’s relationship to humanity. I have found this to work out in talking about how we can relate to God (dating), how we come to accept God into our lives (engagement) and how we must come to a point of total devotion (marriage).  It also addresses sin, how we can sin against God but maintain the bond, how we must seek God’s mercy when we rebel, and how we are viewed in God’s eyes.

The proof of relational theology is also expressed in experience.  As a hospice chaplain I find many people are drawn to a legal, contractual view of God.  Any theological model should bring hope. However, theology based on reason alone leaves them with a view of God as distant, judgmental, and needing to be “bought off” through acts of religion. They are left with uncertainty and fear, a lack of hope.  When I reframe the view of God into a relational model they respond positively to God and become comforted spiritually.  To me a theology that brings hope to a person is a significant proof of the validity of the model.
I look forward to your exploration of the issues Tom.  It is well worth the effort.


Rob L. Staples

Tom:

Good.  But as a fellow “relationalist” I think it would be helpful to state the opposite, i.e., what is relational theology opposing or trying to counteract?  For what it’s worth . . . ..


mike lady

It’s interesting that you do not give even a nod to some branch of the reformed tree.  Not all in the reformed, Calvinist, camp believe that God is impassible or unmoved by our plight, prayers, sorrows or joys.  Love to get your thoughts.


Derek Flood

“Not all in the reformed, Calvinist, camp believe that God is impassible or unmoved”

Moltmann (who is Reform) and his understanding of the “crucified God” would be a good example of that.


John W. Dally

“Not all in the reformed, Calvinist, camp believe that God is impassible or unmoved by our plight, prayers, sorrows or joys.  Love to get your thoughts.”

As practiced Calvinists think of God as compassionate and listening to prayers. However, Five Point Calvinism (TULIP) leaves little room for compassion. If a person is not Elect, it does not matter how repentant or contrite a person may be, that person is destined to hell.

I have had families of patients worry because their dying loved one never made a “profession of faith.”  I would ask, “Do they deserve hell?”  “NO!” they would say. I would try to get them to go with their heart, not their theological model. When they listen to the heart they put aside their contractual/legal model and go with a relational model.  It is amazing that when they do that a look of peace comes over them.  Their model was failing them, their heart and openness to God’s relationship brings hope.


mike lady

John, the calvininst would say that if a person is truly repentant and contrite that would prove their are of the elect.  I fear you are letting characitures overly influence your thinking.  As to whether or not we “deserve hell” the response for everyone of us is a resounding “YES!” It is solely by the grace of God in sending His Son that we are set free through faith.  I think a better question could possibly be asking about the fruit that they witnessed throughout their family members life that would point to a genuine ongoing relationship with God.  A feeling of peace is fantastic as long as there is truth at the heart of it.  That He saves even one shows His incredible compassion.


Ben Wornell

“Relational” as a modifier on universe is fundamentally different from “relational” as a modifier on people.  I’m assuming by “universe” you mean the physical makeup of everything that exists.

Although the spatial distance between objects, the attraction/repulsion resulting from the four fundamental forces, and affection/repulsion between to beings can all be characterized as “relations” they are at first glance different, so that one asserting they are the same should have the burden of proof.  Additionally, physical objects and beings are fundamentally different, so that the burden is doubled.

Obviously, english is not meant to be a metaphysically accurate language, so we probably should not exercise our logic at the level of the it (happenstance) words.

I’m guessing that relational theology either (1) is not dependent on the premise that these “relational” concepts are identical or (2) if it is dependent thereon then it proves them be some prior a better grounded.

Otherwise, I fear it is deeply flawed.

I hope you upcoming book deals with these fundamental issues and does not merely rely on a linguistic happenstance.

(Note: I do apologize if the above appear curt…and for errors…as i have imbibed a moderate volume of the sugar excrement of yeast.  I think your theological postings are wonderful despite the fact I remain wholly unconvinced)


Peter Lambert

Hi Tom
nice post thank you. I am currently working on a relational theology and sytematic, would be interested to talk to you further if you have the time.
Bless you


Lee Savage

Great post. What I could say has been said before. We were created to be relational beings. Each of us,a different part of the Body, working in unison.


Dan Smith

Nice outline.  Would love to hear your thoughts about the Lutheran version of this.  I for one like Moltmann’s trinitarianism as a form of relational ontology (if one can say that), although he is officially a Calvinist.  Luther’s pro me and the sense of God’s deep interrelatedness with sinful humans is very important in my theology – always rooted in grace.  My quest right now is how this form of relatedness can be expanded to include the rest of creation.


Don Ely

Hi Tom,

My theological journey hasn’t unfurled to the depth and detail as yours in many ways, nor is my experience the same, but I am headed down the same (or at least a parallel) path. I am currently teaching Bible and counseling at New Life Theological Seminary in Charlotte, NC, and basing my courses on what I call ‘Dispositional Theology’ (DT) which is keyed on the disposition of love (1 Jn 4:8, 16) and light (1:5) of God toward His created people as the foundation of His nature and character and the essence of Who He is. This makes persons, first and foremost, the objects of His love, and having been created for that purpose, everything that occurs in their lives is purposefully intended to draw them closer to God.

I am beginning my Th.D. in NT Theology at the University of South Africa (dissertation only) because I believe I am called to write the dissertation, but none was required in my master’s program. The dissertation will detail the DT concept and its applications in the academy, the church, and the world. To this point in my studies I have found no one whose theology/worldview has come so close as yours to reflecting that which our Lord has shown me.

I would like, with your permission, to send you the paper that I have submitted for presentation at the ETS Southeastern Regional Conference in March. It is a brief outline of my work to date on the DT project and provides a basic outline of where that work is headed. The bottom line is that it is applicational in that what I propose to do is help people see the God of the Bible for Who He says He is, as opposed to what people have painted Him to be through fear, rumor, tradition, supposition, ego, and anything not directly asociated with His own disposition and example. The more we know Him, the more we know how much He loves us. The world must know just how desirable God is, and that knowledge begins in His unvarnished Word.

As you have opportunity, would you please get in touch. Thank you for your tremendous assistance in helping all of us to truly see our Lord for Who He is.


Fashpaimi

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Contra Calvinism: Conclusion – Almost Heresy

[…] that shows things are just not so. Reality is much more open and relational, which open and relational theologians (such as yours truly) are quite comfortable […]


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