One of the most vibrant developments in Christian theology has happened in the past 50 years. The conversation is diverse and includes everyone from Process friendly Mainliners to Vatican II Catholics, from Emergent types to progressive Evangelicals – and plenty of others.
These diverse perspectives come under a canopy called “Open and Relational Theologies”. The name itself is instructive and helpful in this case. Here is the easiest way to think about the name:
- Open addresses the nature of the future.
- Relational addresses the nature of power.
The Open crew often hale from more evangelical camps who question the common held belief (in their circles) that the future is determined. Questions of human free will, God’s intervention, and nature of certainty when interpreting things like biblical prophecy, salvation, and world history.
The Relational crew is more concerned with assumptions of God’s character and power and thus question common held beliefs about things like omnipotence and intervention. This camp looks at world history and says, ‘We know how God’s activity has been framed and thought of in the past but is that really how the world works?’ Challenges to the other famous ‘O’ words are seriously undertaken: omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence.
Both groups have many positive assertions even though they often grow out of a negative critique of established or institutional assumption regarding God’s character and work in the world.
There is much overlap between the two schools and thus they often work together and can be grouped at partners.
There are, however, three significant differences:
- Open thinkers often come from an evangelical background and thus are heavily Bible focused. They question the nature of the future and of God’s power but are unwilling to go all the way over to Process thoughts or to convert to a different metaphysic.
- Relational folks may be more likely to engage liberal brands of biblical scholarship and to shed antiquated or outdated notions by integrating scientific discoveries and new models (and better explanations) of reality.
- Open thinkers also hold that God could be coercive and interventionist, but willing holds back (or relinquished this) in love and for human free-will. Relational thinkers may be more willing to go all the way and say ‘no – this is just not the nature of God or God’s character. It is not that God could if God wanted to … it is simply not the way that things work.’
I came to O&R through Emergence thought. Emergent explanations of science and society make far more sense than former top-down and authoritarian (coercive) models of God and the world.
Emergence thought focus on the inter-related nature of existence and how higher forms of organization emerged from simpler and smaller elements (or entities) within the organization or eco-system.
Many of the models we have inherited from church history are either based in hierarchy (like King-Caesar thought) or are mechanical (from the Industrial Revolution and Enlightenment on). Those mechanistic explanations of God’s power and God’s work become problematic and seem entirely outdated (and unprovable) in a world come of age.
Open & Relational schools of thought provide a much better model of reality (nature) and human experience than antiquated explanations based in the 3-tiered Universe and ancient metaphysics.
Here is a bullet point list of themes compiled by my friend:
- God’s primary characteristic is love.
- Theology involves humble speculation about who God truly is and what God really does.
- Creatures – at least humans – are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation.
- God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others.
- Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships.
- God’s experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence is unchanging.
- God created all nondivine things.
- God takes calculated risks, because God is not all-controlling.
- Creatures are called to act in loving ways that please God and make the world a better place.
- The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God.
- God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions.
- Although everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to how creatures experience time.
 Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software by Steven Johnson
 This phrase and similar concepts come from thinkers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Gordon Kaufman in the wake of the oversized catastrophes in WWII such as the holocaust and the nuclear bomb. The basic assertion that humanity has entered a new phase or stage in their capacity for technology and devastation. Humanity is no longer in its infancy and thus its conceptions of God must move out of the primitive and adolescent understandings that we have inherited through our traditions and history.
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