Why We Embrace Open and Relational Theology

February 15th, 2021 / 6 Comments

I’m writing a book introducing open and relational theology. It’s aimed at the general public and for use in classrooms, small groups, and personal enrichment.

Early in the book, I list reasons people are attracted to open and relational theology. Many of the reasons come from posts on social media. Whole books have been written on some of these reasons.

In this post and in the book, I sketch out each briefly. Below, in no particular order, are reasons many find open and relational theology appealing.

The Reasons…

Jesus – A number of Christians point to Jesus as the primary reason they embrace open and relational theology. In their eyes, the persuasive love of Jesus — who re-presents God (Heb 1:3) — reveals God as one who loves nonviolently. Jesus engaged in giving and receiving love with others believing their responses were not predetermined. God does the same. We best know what God’s love is, say some open and relational thinkers, from the life, teachings, sufferings, death, and resurrection of Jesus (1 Jn 3:16). Open and relational theology offers a framework to make sense of God in light of Jesus.

Scriptures – Others interpret sacred scriptures as pointing to the primacy of divine love. Jews (and Christians) might highlight the fifteen times these words appear in the Hebrew Bible: “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to act in anger, abounding in loving kindness, and forgiving iniquity and transgression” (Exod 34:6-7; Num 14:18; Neh 9:31; Psalm 86:15, Joel 2:13; etc.). Muslims might build a case for open and relational theology from the way the Qur’an portrays Allah. It begins, “Allah is the ultimate source of instant beneficence and eternal mercy, who encompasses the entire universe” (1:1-3). The root Arabic letters R-H-M describe God’s caring and compassion. In addition to what scripture says about Jesus, Christians might emphasize “God is love” (1 Jn 8,16) and other New Testament love passages.

Logic of Love – Other advocates of open and relational theology build from the logic of love itself. They ask questions like the following: Does love cause or allow unnecessary pain? Does love predestine some to eternal hell? Does love entirely control others? Concern itself only with self-interest and ignore other-interests? Does love make sense without freedom? To each of these questions, open and relational thinkers answer, “No!” If God loves everyone and everything, a loving God is open and relational.

Moral Intuitions – Others come to open and relational theology following their deepest moral intuitions. They may not have been exposed to religion, but they respond to truth, beauty, goodness, and love. It stands to reason a Source grounds and summons such responses. And if this Source is truly loving, it must be relational rather than static, engaging an open future, not a settled one. The deep intuitions of many fit the open and relational vision.

Healthy Relationships – Another entryway to open and relational thought starts by asking, “What if we took seriously what the research in psychology, sociology, communications, and medicine tells us about relationships and genuine happiness?” Then they ask, “What if we believed God relates in the ways research says healthy people relate?” Many such studies suggest we’re healthier when not manipulated, bullied, neglected, or abused. In fact, people who think God benevolently nurtures are, on average, healthier and happier than others. They have better relationships, greater psychological well-being, and more positive social connections. Some embrace what social science research tells us about the good life and extrapolate theologically.

Solves Intellectual Problems – A good number of open and relational thinkers arrived at these ideas after an intellectual quest. Some wrestled for years with questions about divine grace and sovereignty. Others wondered about God’s relation to time. Some looked for solutions to why a loving and powerful God doesn’t prevent genuine evil. Others tried to reconcile their sense of free will with an active God. Some sought a theology that didn’t imply God is an old white guy intervening on occasion to mansplain morality. And so on. Open and relational theology offers real solutions to our biggest questions.

Relational Worldview – Others came to open and relational theology not so much to find answers but because it fits the way they naturally relate. This is a common entryway for feminists, for instance. A relational God who engages noncoercively fits what many intuit is the best way to live. It fits existence top to bottom, simple to complex, individual to community. If we are open and relational beings in an open and relational world, why not think our Creator is open and relational?

Science and Philosophy – Still others follow theories in science and philosophy to an open and relational view. A number of physicists, biologists, and chemists find creation to be evolving. They conjecture that a God who also in some way evolves must have created it. Or take philosophy. In attempts to make sense of morality and existence, many ethicists and metaphysicians postulate the existence of an open and relational deity who grounds morals and goads existence toward complexity. In fact, a disproportionate percentage of scholars exploring issues in science and religion embrace an open and relational perspective.

Perfect Being – One might come to believe God is open and relational through what some call “Perfect Being” theology. Instead of starting with scripture, science, religious experience, philosophies, or wisdom traditions, this approach asks, “What would a perfect being be like?” This perfect being is, of course, what many call God. If love is the greatest among divine perfections, one might deduce that a loving God is perfectly open and relational. Beginning with love also overcomes contradictions in perfect being theologies that start with power, timelessness, or changeless perfection.

Meaning and Purpose – I conclude with a final reason some find open and relational theology appealing and likely true. The open and relational view provides a framework for thinking our lives have meaning and purpose. Most theologies portray God as one who either pre-programs all life or can get results singlehandedly. In those theologies, our choices don’t really matter. By contrast, open and relational thinking says we have genuinely free choices. Not even God can stop us. The future rests, in part, on what we decide, so our lives have meaning and purpose.

Concluding Questions

I conclude with two questions.

Did I miss something above?

What attracted you to open and relational theology?

Looking forward to reading your comments!

Add comment

Comments

Dave Norman

Hi Tom,

I so appreciate your work. As a “podrishionerl” of Greg
Boyd’s Woodland Hills Church, I have listened with great interest to the various podcasts in which you and Greg discuss your commonalities and differences in your approach to an Open and Relational Theology. The different “streams” that lead people to ORT’s big pond (trying not to mix metaphors by saying “big tent”) are important for people to understand and appreciate. I think we can all learn something meaningful from each of the streams, such that we can see how God works with us and our reference points to bring us into relationship with him. Highlighting these differences can help people find their way to relationship via a stream of thought different than the one they thought they needed to accept but couldn’t.

Like God Can’t, I think this new “primer” can become an important book to reach people who otherwise would not have thought they could conceive of a God that loved and cared for them.

Blessings in you continued work!

Dave Norman
Oxnard, CA


David

Nothing. Well, maybe your photos. And your sincerity. And your determination. Those are things that attract me enough to you to avoid unsubscribing to your regular emails. But I’m working out a different theology – my own homebrew. And it’s not for grumpy people and the people who love them like open and relational theology is. My homebrew is probably just for folks who start with the first three commandments and put G-d above all, don’t hang a label on’em, and don’t confine’em to the limits of their imagination. Folks, like, maybe, Bart Erhman. Yeah, I know. You’re probably grinning. But he wouldn’t find it funny. Nor would many others. Still, three out of ten commandments strongly suggest avoiding any theological agreement but one – G-d above all. Ehrman’s career, despite his protest, does that. Glory to the Most High. And after that, just about anything goes. For me, now, my thoughts are consumed with the Tree of Life – how far from it I am. I love eating the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and forgetting that a belly full of know-how that’s all mine will not save me from the consequences of never adequately taming the eternity G-d put into my mind. Anyway, you love the grumpy people. And me too, I guess. But I do have to at least try to keep my heart supple; a soft heart is the only way I can make sense of the Word. And I find my heart hardens the more time I spend helping the grumpy perfect an image and a name for G-d that suits them. In fact, it’s gettin’ a bit tight now just thinking about it. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt goodness and mercy shall follow you TJ Oord.


thomasjayoord

I love it, David! And given what I know of Bart through his writings and a few email changes I’ve had with him, I think he could accept an ORT vision.

Thanks for your kind and generous post,

Tom


thomasjayoord

Thanks a ton, Dave! And I appreciate your kind words!

Tom


Craig

Hi Tom,
In last couple of months have come across the ‘Can I say This in Church’ podcast [possibly by accident or perhaps divine providence? 😊] First picked up on ORT when I came across your podcast on “God Can’t Revisited” so dug through the archives to find your original podcast and listened with interest. Since then have read through “God Can’t”, “God Can’t Q&A” and have just started on “The Uncontrolling Love of God”. I am also reading John Piper, “God and Coronavirus” which takes a very different point of view, but is the image of God I’ve grown up with!
I’m just starting my journey with ORT. It certainly appeals and I feel I can believe in the God of uncontrolling love but definitely have difficulties with a God who controls, causes/ allows evil when He has the power to stop it.
Interestingly both you and John come to very different conclusions often with the same biblical staring point.
Thank you for your writings and thoughts on these matters. Whether or not I eventually “subscribe” to ORT is neither here nor there, I just appreciate the offering of a different viewpoint.
Thanks
Craig


thomasjayoord

Thanks for this kind note, Craig. I’m happy you find the ORT ideas intriguing if not also convincing.

I’m almost finished with a book introducing open and relational theology. I hope you find it helpful too!

Tom


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