Basics of Open & Relational Theology

May 8th, 2024 / 1 Comment

In our book God After Deconstruction, Tripp Fuller and I explore the good reasons people deconstruct and offer an open and relational theological response. We think this theology makes better sense than traditional theologies, and we believe it’s better than atheism.

To conclude God After Deconstruction, we offer an overview of this theological perspective to supplement what we had proposed in previous chapters. We focus on four ideas common among open and relational thinkers and a fifth common among Christians who embrace this theology.

Open and relational theology comes in many varieties—and other open and relational thinkers describe it differently than we do.[1] Some add an idea or two or subtract something. We welcome this diversity, because we don’t have God or life all figured out. We all need to have some basic humility, because our lives and thinking are always in process.[2]


The word “relational” figures prominently in open and relational theology.[3] It has several meanings, but the primary one refers to God. For God to relate means God influences creation, and creation influences God. God makes a difference to our experience, and we make a difference to God’s.

Saying “God is relational” will seem obvious to some readers. The idea fits the general description of God in the Bible and how most people talk about God in everyday life. But we need to point out that many traditional theologies do not say God is relational.

Leading theologians of yesteryear and some today—in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and other traditions—say explicitly that God is not relational. The classic word used is that God is “impassible.” This means creatures cannot affect or influence God. This view makes it difficult to think our lives make any ultimate difference, given that we all eventually die. And it’s difficult to imagine an impassible God giving and receiving love, because love is inherently relational. A non-relational God can’t be loving.

By contrast, open and relational theology says God engages us moment by moment. Rather than being aloof and unaffected, God cares for and interacts with creation.[4] What we do affects God’s life and plans, and God and creation literally make history together. It’s like a nonstop jazz session. For this reason, open and relational theology accounts well for the desire many express to have “a relationship with God.” Relations with God are only possible if God is inherently relational.

Many in the open and relational community also use the term “relational” to talk about interactions between us and others. Our lives as individuals and groups will be partly determined by how we relate to other people, creation, and God.[5] We live in an interrelated universe, which means our actions make a difference to others and ourselves.[6] Relationality extends even to the simplest levels of life, including quarks and amoeba.

We live in a relational world and interact with a relational God.


To say God and creation make history together leads naturally to the meaning of the term “open” in open and relational theology. This word identifies the future as a realm of options rather than a settled state of affairs. The future is open. God neither foreordains nor foreknows all. In each moment, God and creation respond to what has happened in the past and face a host of possibilities for the future. The present will always be becoming in an open and relational universe.

Many people begin to ponder open and relational theology when someone asks, “Does God know the future?” Traditional theologians have typically taught that God is outside time or timeless. And in some mysterious way, the traditional God knows our future as if it has already occurred.

Think about it, though: God can only be certain about the future if it’s fixed, settled, or completed. If the future were already completed, however, we couldn’t make free choices from among possible futures. We can’t choose among real options. In other words, genuine free will makes no sense if the future isn’t open. That’s why we emphasize this.

Another way to think about the “open” in open and relational theology involves time: time is real for God. Creation and God both experience moment by moment, sequentially. Nothing and no one can change the past. This means our lives are in process, and so is God’s. Both Creator and creation experience the adventure of living.[7]

Beings who move into an open future have histories. Their past may be over and done, but its influence is a factor in their current choices. The present represents what’s happening now. And because the future remains open, change is not only possible, it’s persistent.[8]

Both creatures and the Creator move into an open and yet to be determined future.


The third common idea among open and relational thinkers concerns free will.[9] Open and relational theology says we have genuine but limited freedom. We make real choices in each moment, and nothing and no one controls us. Neither atoms, genes, neurons, nor the God of the universe, entirely determines our lives. We’re free.

Notice the word “limited” in the phrase “genuine but limited freedom.” Open and relational thinkers don’t think we’re free to do absolutely anything, at any time. We always choose in contexts; we’re shaped by history; our bodies also constrain what’s possible. Although various forces, factors, and other actors limit our options, they also generate possibilities.[10]

The role of creaturely freedom in open and relational theology helps us make sense of evil and God’s love. A God who neither controls nor foreknows an open future shouldn’t be blamed when evil occurs.[11] We suffer unnecessarily when free creatures choose badly, natural systems go awry, or random and chance events occur. God empowers and calls all toward positive consequences, but we and creation can do other than what God wants. An uncontrolling Spirit of love isn’t culpable for our failings or flaws in an evolving universe.

The open and relational womanist Monica Coleman explains what this means for understanding our working with God for transformation. “Salvation is not always liberation or freedom from all pain and suffering,” she says. “Salvation is also survival and quality of life, and it requires the cooperation of the world in which we live. While God offers salvific resources, humanity must take advantage of these resources to effect salvation.”[12]

This view of freedom means that open and relational theology rethinks God’s power. As we mentioned earlier, we suggest rejecting the language of omnipotence and replacing it with words like “amipotent” to talk about God’s power of love. Whatever language one prefers, the open and relational God isn’t a control freak.[13]

Creatures have freedom and agency, and God isn’t controlling.


The God who doesn’t control, relates with creatures, and promotes flourishing can rightly be called loving. “God is love” makes sense in an open and relational framework, because love always characterizes God’s activities and nature.[14] We have no reason to fear this relentless Lover and every reason to cooperate in co-creating.

“Love” is a misunderstood word, however. Some definitions get at part of the truth without capturing love well. By “love,” we mean acting intentionally, in relational response to God and others, with the aim to promote well-being.[15] Love seeks overall flourishing. This includes flourishing for oneself and one’s enemies, for family and strangers, for one’s friends but also other creatures on the planet. Love seeks to enhance the health and genuine happiness of everyone, to the extent genuinely possible.

Of course, many traditional theologies claim God is loving. But the deity they describe allows evil that could be stopped, sends people to hell, has no empathy or capacity for loving emotion, predestines pain and suffering, cares exclusively for Himself, and/or timelessly stands above it all. The traditional God depicted in these theologies looks like a narcissist, at best, and a devil, at worst. Thank God so many are deconstructing that deity!

The loving Spirit of open and relational theology invites and empowers creatures to love. We imitate this Lover when we act to enhance the well-being of others and ourselves. Rather than being entirely mysterious, we can emulate this Perfect Purveyor of Goodness.

Creaturely love has a positive effect upon God. In fact, the open and relational theology framework makes sense of what Jesus said was most important: loving God. We can enhance God’s well-being through loving action. By contrast, we can’t love the God envisioned in most traditional theology, because He cannot be affected. A non-relational God can’t enjoy relational love.[16]

There are dozens of good reasons to embrace open and relational theology. But to many people, the best one will be the primacy of love in this perspective.[17] We believe no other theology captures our deep intuitions about the preeminence of love or better describes God as a loving Spirit.

The loving Spirit empowers and inspires us to love.


The four ideas we’ve explored are embraced by most, if not all, open and relational thinkers, no matter their religious tradition, and by those subscribing to no religion. This fifth idea, however, is common among Christian open and relational thinkers.[18]

Open and relational Christians believe Jesus of Nazareth provides the clearest revelation of God’s love. In his teachings, life, miracle-working, death, and resurrection, Jesus represents a God who loves everyone and everything—no exceptions. We see Jesus as the visible image of an invisible, loving God (Col.1:15). We ought to imitate this 1st-century Nazarene, and make him our model for what we say and do. Jesus is central to Christian open and relational theology.

Just as Jesus showed genuine emotion in empathetic response to others, so the open and relational God empathizes with us. Jesus sided with the hurting, marginalized, and poor, so the open and relational God sides with the oppressed. Just as Jesus relied upon his followers to do their part in ushering in the kin(g)dom of heaven, so an open and relational God calls for creatures to cooperate in the work of love.

Open and relational thinkers explore many other facets of Jesus’ life and ministry. The Christologies they construct vary in some ways from one another and, often, in major ways from traditional thinking. At their heart are the core convictions of open and relational thinking about God, creation, and the centrality of love.

Much more could be said about the ideas above, of course. And related ideas are also worth exploring. In fact, I wrote an introduction to them called Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas.[19]

Other open and relational books explore these topics in more detail. For instance, if you want to delve deep, Tripp wrote two books on Jesus, including Divine Self-Investment: An Open and Relational Constructive Christology.[20] Other open and relational thinkers address the wide array of topics mentioned in this book, and many others that are not. We’ve given you a lot of footnotes so you can explore on your own.

Life presents us with varied and complex experience, and open and relational thinkers remain at the fore of trying to make sense of it all.

[1]. Mark Feldmeir offers an accessible and pastoral introduction to this thinking in his book Life After God (Knoxville, TN: Westminster John Knox, 2023).

[2]. A number of Substack writers work out an open and relational theology alongside deconstruction themes. Among them, see Brandon Brown, Diana Butler Bass, Ryan Canty, Gloria Coffin, Simon Cross, JR Forasteros, Jonathan Foster, Tori Owens, Jim Palmer, Nick Polk, Eric Sentell, Glenn Siepert, and James Travis Young.

[3]. See Curtis Holtzen, The God Who Trusts (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2019); Brint Montgomery, Thomas Jay Oord, and Karen Winslow, eds., Relational Theology (Point Loma, CA: Point Loma, 2012).

[4]. Sheri Kling explores open and relational spirituality in A Process Spirituality (Lexington, 2020); Daniel Dombrowski explores the role of experience in Process Mysticism (Albany, NY: SUNY, 2023).

[5]. Ulrick Rafseger Dam explores what a healthy Christian community can be in Building the Basilea (Grasmere, ID: SacraSage, 2023).

[6]. Among the many who describe this well, see Catherine Keller, On the Mystery (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2007).

[7]. For sophisticated works on God and time in open and relational thought, see Daniel A. Dombrowski, Analytic Theism, Hartshorne, and the Concept of God (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1996); William Hasker, God, Time, and Knowledge (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989); R. T. Mullins, The End of the Timeless God (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016); Timothy O’Connor, Theism and Ultimate Explanation: The Necessary Shape of Contingency (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012); Richard Swinburne, The Coherence of Theism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977); Dale Tuggy, “Three Roads to Open Theism,” Faith and Philosophy, 24: (2007): 28–51; Keith Ward, God, Chance, and Necessity (Oxford: Oneworld, 1996); and Nicholas Wolterstorff, “God Everlasting” in Philosophy and Faith, David Shatz, ed. (New York: McGraw, 2002), 62-69.

[8]. Manuel Schmid explores how best to frame God’s relation to time in God in Motion (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2021).

[9]. To dig deeper on issues of freedom, see Jeffrey F. Keuss, Freedom of the Self (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2010); and Timothy O’Connor, Persons and Causes (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002); Rory Randall, An Open Theist Renewal Theology (Grasmere, ID: SacraSage, 2021).

[10]. One of the best introductions to open and relational theology is by Gregory Boyd and called God of the Possible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2000).

[11]. A number of open and relational thinkers argue this point. For instance, see Jason Clark, God is (Not) in Control (Jason Clark, 2017); Brian Macallan, Forgiving God: A Risky Adventure with the Divine (Process Century Press, 2024).

[12]. Monica Coleman, Making a Way Out of No Way, 32.

[13]. Many in the open and relational community compare a healthy God-creature relationship to dancing. See, for instance, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Dancing with God (St. Louis, Mo.: Chalice, 2007).

[14]. In addition to Oord’s writings on love, see Dave Andrews, No Religion But Love (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012); Jared Byas, Love Matters More (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2020); Eleanor O’Donnell, The Relational Power of God (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, 2023); David Polk, God of Empowering Love (Process Century, 2016); Sharon Baker Putt, A Nonviolent Theology of Love; and Paul Sponheim, Love’s Availing Power (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2011).

[15]. For an explanation of this definition, see Thomas Jay Oord, Defining Love: A Philosophical, Scientific, and Theological Engagement (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2010) and Thomas Jay Oord, Pluriform Love: An Open and Relational Theology of Well-Being (Grasmere, ID: SacraSage, 2022). Stephen G. Post has written often and well on love. Among his many books, see Unlimited Love (Philadelphia: Templeton, 2003).

[16]. To go deeper on the idea God is affected by and feels emotions, see Juergen Moltmann, The Crucified God (Fortress, 2015); R. T. Mullins, God and Emotion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020); Terryl and Fiona Givens, The God Who Weeps (Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret, 2017).

[17]. For sermons on love from an open and relational perspective, see Jeff Wells, et. al., eds., Preaching the Uncontrolling Love of God (Grasmere, ID: SacraSage, 2024).

[18]. For open and relational Christologies in addition to Tripp Fuller’s, see Gregory Boyd, Cross Vision (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2018); John B. Cobb, Jr., Jesus’ Abba (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016); Bruce Epperly, Jesus (Energion, 2023); Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God; Marjorie Suchocki, God-Christ-Church (New York: Crossroad, 1989); and Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ (New York: Convergent, 2021).

[19]. Thomas Jay Oord, Open and Relational Theology (Grasmere, ID: SacraSage, 2021).

[20]. Tripp Fuller, Divine Investment (Grasmere, ID: SacraSage, 2019). See also Jesus: Liar, Lunatic, Lord, or Awesome? (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015).

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John Pankey

Great job outlining a concise description of what we hold to as He holds on to us.

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