What is Relational Theology?
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
|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.