Open and Relational Theology

30 July 2021

Among thinking people today there appears to be a huge surge of interest in what is commonly called ‘open and relational theology’. But what is it? One of its foremost exponents answers that question in:

Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas by Thomas J. Oord (SacraSage, 2021).

The book is aimed at ordinary people—and not all of them Christians. So it grounds its message in painful real-scenarios experienced by folk like you and me: a girl raped by friends from church; queries about God’s ‘sovereign plan’ and how it gels with human free will; misgivings about hell as traditionally portrayed; questions about why God answers so few prayers etc.

Surveys show that most people believe God to be in one of four broad categories: authoritative (a sovereign judge who punishes the disobedient), benevolent (empathetic and forgiving), distant (remote and uninvolved) or critical (disengaged now, but will judge at the end), and the book examines each of these in depth. It recognises that we can’t claim to know God in detail, because he is beyond human analysis. Yet he has given certain pointers to his nature.

Oord examines the ‘conventional’ God’s traits and finds them wanting. He then presents open and relational theology as in every way more satisfying, beginning with ‘God is love’. People come to it because it fits with the flow of Scripture, it harmonises with the logic of love, it is intuitive to the seeking heart, it matches the findings of social science and the way we relate in society, it reflects the life and teaching of Jesus, it echoes the findings of science and philosophy, it sits comfortably with trends in art and creativity, and it provides a framework for believing that our lives have meaning and purpose.

Against this background, he describes open and relational theology in some depth under the broad headings that God is: open, relational, ‘amipotent’, present and loving. This is the beating heart of the book, with much to stir both mind and emotions.

The author does not use ‘proof texts’, because he aims to include readers for whom Scripture may not carry a lot of weight. Nor does he use much theologically technical vocabulary, and when he does he explains it in simple terms. You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to grasp the message: it is heart-warmingly accessible to all, and has the ring of truth about it.

For those who want to dig deeper, there is a useful appendix listing some scholars and movements that have embraced some form of open and relational theology, followed by a bibliography suggesting further reading. But you will probably be more than satisfied, and blessed, by this book itself!

Here’s a selection of quotations, with Kindle location numbers.

These ideas align with our deepest intuitions and everyday experiences. They match scripture well, although we must abandon some interpretations people have offered.  (30)

Without believable answers to life’s pressing questions, theology is of little use.  (191)

I believe an open and relational view of God makes the most sense overall. But I’m not certain. I don’t know God fully, so I can’t be 100% sure. I look at reality through limited and sometimes distorted lenses, which means my vision is cloudy. I just don’t know for sure. Open and relational thinkers can’t prove their view is the right one.  (251)

The conventional God exists above or outside time…  is usually thought of as masculine…  God is unaffected by what we do…  is in control…  is large and in charge…  is pristine…  usually keeps a distance, preoccupied with His own glory…  Our actions don’t make a difference to the future that the conventional God already knows as fact…  loves some people, sometimes…  I don’t believe in this God.  (280ff)

It’s common for open and relational thinkers to start with “God is love” as they consider theology, their lives, and existence.  (334)

Open and relational theology offers a framework to make sense of God in light of Jesus.  (375)

Artists and the artistically minded find open and relational theology attractive for how it fits their vision of the creative life.  (389)

The “open” in open and relational theology refers to the ongoing nature of time. Creation and Creator experience time moment by moment with no preordained future.  (434)

If we examine our own experiences, we’ll discover we already live as if the future is open. We live in the forward march of time and experience a relentless flow into the sea of possibilities. We think our decisions partly decide what will be, and already live as if these opportunities are a reality…  God experiences the flow of time too. The past is past for God, and not even God can change it. The present is present, and the future is open.  (449)

In the sacred texts of Christianity and Judaism, writers describe God responding to creation or deciding to do something new. These are time-oriented activities, not timeless ones.  (463)

A God who faces an open future can’t predestine everything. If God pre-decided it all, the future would be closed. This God ordained everything in advance, including torture, rape, disease, tragedy, accidents, violence, and ecological destruction.  (491)

Open and relational thinkers reject the idea that God knows in advance everything that will ever happen. We think God has plans and purposes, and God knows what might happen. But God can’t be certain about what free creatures will decide or what random events will occur until those decisions have been made or events happen…  If God foreknows all, freedom, love, and randomness are myths.  (505)

Does open and relational theology reject what scholars call “omniscience?” Is God not all-knowing? No. God knows everything. Open and relational thinkers say God knows all that can be known. God knows all that happened in the past, all that’s happening in the present, and all possibilities for the future.  (535)

Conventional theologies focus on scripture passages that say God never changes but cannot account for those saying God changes. And those passages are common…  God’s essence is eternally unchanging; it’s stable and steadfast. But God’s experience changes moment by moment; it’s flexible and forming.  (579)

My prayers become new data, pertinent information, relational input, and points of possibility that God can use in the next moments. My prayers are actions that generate new options.  (653)

Whether one relies on scripture, arguments, or intuition, open and relational thought provides a sense of freedom. Those who embrace it step outside confining categories, able to explore a way that reflects their experience of reality. Many feel invigorated. God seems more like a companion. Life seems expansive. Reality becomes a pulsing, living movement into possibilities. Life is open!  (682)

No human or pet connects with us perfectly, and none can feel all our pain. But a God who is always present, in all places, and in all aspects of our minds and bodies can and does empathize in ways that surpass any empathy we receive from others.  (758)

God is concerned about each creature, each entity, and the world. God shows concern without playing favorites. God also gives and receives in relationship like persons do. As one with intentions, plans, memories, and purposes, God is a personal agent. This meaning of “personal” makes sense.  (815)

Open and relational thinkers believe God experiences emotions without thinking those emotions lead to moral meltdowns. God relates intimately with creation and feels all that’s publicly feelable. But God’s emotions never lead to evil.  (830)

In our moment-by-moment experiences, we all make free choices. That’s non-negotiable. Even those who say they’re not free act as if they are.  (995)

Saying freedom or something like it extends to the tiniest things allows open and relational thinkers to say God never controls cells, atoms, or even the simplest entities of existence. Creation includes free processes.2 That helps when explaining evil.  (1040)

Open and relational theology doesn’t rise or fall on the question of free will among quarks and amoebae. But it insists humans and other creatures act freely, although freedom is always limited. Most say free will is a gift from a gracious God who desires loving relationships.  (1054)

While “love” doesn’t sit alongside “open” and “relational” in this theology’s title, open and relational thinkers emphasize it. And most conceive of God’s power in the light of love. An open and relational God exerts open and relational power. God doesn’t predetermine or singlehandedly decide all that happens but works with others in the ongoing adventure of life. As an actor, God convinces other actors who have power to co-labor.  (1068)

God can’t control, because uncontrolling love comes first in God’s unchanging nature. Because God can’t deny the divine nature, God can’t control anyone or anything.  (1123)

God is neither impotent nor omnipotent but what I call “amipotent.” I coined this word by combining the Latin word for power — “potent” — with a Latin prefix for love — “ami.”  (1137)

An amipotent God is active, but not a dictator. Amipotence is receptive but not overwhelmed. It engages without domineering, is generous but not pushy, and invites without monopolizing. Amipotence is divine strength working positively at all times and places.  (1151)

God doesn’t cause evil or control others. And God doesn’t permit evil for some greater good. Consequently, the open and relational God isn’t guilty of failing to stop the pointless pain and unnecessary suffering we endure.  (1191)

God acts to empower, inspire, and lure others in each moment. This is constructive activity on God’s part, because it makes a real difference to creation. As creatures respond, their actions are creative too.  (1284)

Most open and relational thinkers believe the scientific consensus that our universe is billions of years old. They affirm the development of complex life through a lengthy evolutionary process. But they say this process involves more than chance, genetic mutations, and natural selection. Creatures respond to their environments in self-organizing and self-causal ways. Symbiotic relations emerge and ideas pass through cultural forces that influence evolution’s course. And God works in the process as a real creating contributor.  (1311)

If we take seriously our role as co-creators with our Creator, we will live in particular ways. We no longer see ourselves as passive observers, drifting along without contributing to the world. No longer do we accept harmful practices in land management and animal care, for instance. No longer do we sit paralyzed as climate change alters our world for the worse.  (1340)

If we polled open and relational thinkers, I suspect many would say the second most important divine attribute (after love) is God’s universal and experiential presence.  (1405)

Creatures can be in the divine experience without altering the divine nature. Creaturely sin — lust, killing, cheating, and more — can affect God’s experience without altering God’s perfect love.  (1451)

Open and relational thinkers also think big when it comes to atonement. God doesn’t pre-decide that some people go to heaven and others roast in hell. All are invited to a loving relationship. No one is irredeemable. God cares about saving animals and creation too, because God loves everyone and everything.  (1494)

I know of no open and relational thinker who believes God sends people to eternal conscious torment. In other words, they reject the traditional idea of hell. The idea that God sends people to eternal punishment not only contradicts steadfast love, it also has little if any scriptural support.  (1564)

Theoretically, some people, even in the afterlife, may never say “yes” to God. But the steadfast love of God continues inviting them, moment by moment, everlastingly. Consequently, the idea of relentless love provides plausible grounds to believe all will eventually cooperate.  (1591)

I earlier listed reasons many embrace open and relational theology. Those reasons point to its usefulness, truthfulness, experiential fit, consonance with scripture, alignment with science, and more. I embrace them all. But the biggest reason I adopt open and relational theology is… LOVE! In my opinion, open and relational thought provides the best overall framework for understanding and promoting love.  (1612)

Augustine’s God is a complete narcissist. The very heart of how I understand the gospel — that God loves me, you, and all creation in the sense of wanting our salvation/well-being — collapses in Augustine’s logic.  (1669)

If we fail to answer love’s call, God doesn’t retaliate. An open and relational God keeps no record of wrongs and condemns the payback of eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Natural negative consequences come from saying no to love, but God doesn’t dish out those consequences. They’re naturally rendered within the situation. Unlike the God of many conventional theologies, the Faithful Forgiver in open and relational thought doesn’t run a retribution racket.  (1702)

Bad theology expressed in a kind way is still bad theology.  (1781)

Few conventional theologies focus on love or let it be their guide. Most start with God’s power, a sacred book, an ancient creed, particular religious experiences, or a doctrinal issue. Problems follow. Even though Jesus says love is the greatest command, Paul says the greatest of the virtues is love, and John says God is love, few theologies follow their lead.  (1796)

Some say God wants to teach us a lesson by causing or allowing tragedy or abuse. Others say evil is part of a divine plan, mysteriously working for some incomprehensible good. Some say those who suffer are being punished, getting what’s due to them. And others simply appeal to mystery: God’s ways are not our ways. If these were the only answers available, atheism would make better sense!  (1908)

Open and relational thinkers believe God gives and receives in relation to creation. That’s relational. Both God and creatures experientially move into an open future. That’s open.  (2039)

My reviews of other books by Thomas Jay Oord on related topics are:

  • God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse and Other Evils: here
  • Q & A on God Can’t: here
  • The Uncontrolling Love of God: here

%d bloggers like this: