Why We Embrace Open and Relational Theology
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.
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.
I conclude with two questions.
Did I miss something above?
What attracted you to open and relational theology?
Looking forward to reading your comments!