Open Theism & “Relationality”

As I continue to work through Creation Set Free (a book on open theology & science), I am coming to hate the word “relationality (R),” for two main reasons.  First, on a purely linguistic level, it is annoying to me that in this work R only refers to libertarian free will interactions.  While I in general share the Open Theist’s (OT) disdain for a coercive construct of God’s relationship to the world, if God forces some-one/thing to perform an action, he is still “relating” to them/it.  Just because certain modes of R are abominable to OT doesn’t mean they can posit a definition that removes them from discussion.  This seems akin to the type of “winning the argument by definition” tactic that OT decry in many Reformed theologian’s use of the word sovereignty. 

Second, R functions as a central concept in their system, but has a huge “blindspot”: the relationality of the Triune God.  I grant that some open theists have realized this & are trying to incorporate God’s Triunity into their models.  To do so they appeal to the oft-used concepts of perichoresis & social models of the Trinity.  While some OT might be genuinely wrestling with the role God as Trinity plays in their understanding of God’s relationality, for many it is merely window dressing.  What seems to be of primary importance is “God’s” relation to creation.  However, to allow the God-world relation priority rather than grounding a theology of R in the doctrine of God seems to be disastrous methodologically. 

Case in point: in Thomas Jay Oord’s essay, he advocates the rejection of creatio ex nihilo, based in part on his sympathy with the contention of process thinker Catherine Keller that “God always relates to or enmeshes in the creativity of others (44).”  The point here is not whether creatio ex nihilo is tenable, but that the driving force behind Oord’s rejection of it is his conviction that “there has never been a time in which God has not provided freedom and agencies to the creatures and creation that God creates (50, emphasis mine).”  This demonstrates that he understands R to refer to how God must relate to his creation (granting them autonomy), & it is this conviction that exerts a controlling influence on how he understands God’s creative act and also renders God’s Triune nature accidental to understanding God’s relationship to his creation.  Whenever an aspect of theology is given such weight as to demand that traditional doctrines are discarded/reinterpreted before the doctrine of God has been explored, implying that God’s revealed nature as Trinity is inconsequential to the discussion, then I submit that one has taken a wrong turn.

So, I could just be cranky tonight (it is late), but I think that I’ve read enough about R for awhile.

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7 responses to “Open Theism & “Relationality”

  1. Totally unrelated, but here is a little shameless self-promotion:

    The Fifth Annual Western Fellowship of Professors and Scholars will be held in Manhattan, Kansas, on October 8-9, 2010, Friday afternoon through Saturday early afternoon. Mark Ziese, professor of Old Testament and archaeology at Cincinnati and a veteran field archaeologist, will be our keynote speaker.

    The purpose of the conference is to encourage fellowship, discussion, and research among scholars from various academic backgrounds. This year’s theme is “Slavery: Hermeneutics and Ethics.” People are still bought and sold, chained and exploited around the world today. What are Christians doing about it now? What have the people of God done through the ages in response to human bondage? How do we interpret biblical texts that either seem to condone slavery or, on the other hand, those that advocate liberation?

  2. Mark,

    Thanks for the info. You know I am always happy to promote WFPS for you. I will write up a separate post soon.

  3. Thanks for your thoughts!

    In April, my monograph, The Nature of Love: A Theology (Chalice), will be published. In that book, I argue for a doubly relational God: God essentially related in Trinity and God essentially related to creation. I think I overcome some of the worries you have voiced here, even if you don’t finally decide to join me in advocating a doubly relational God.

    Thanks again!

    Tom

    • Tom,

      Thanks for the reply. I look forward to the book, it sounds like it might address some of my misgivings.

      If you don’t mind, could you (as much as is possible on a blog) flesh out what you mean by God being “essentially” related to creation? Do you mean it in the same way you would regarding God’s inherent relationality? If so, are you advocating panentheism?

      Enough questions for now. Thanks so much for stopping by!

  4. Derek,

    some initial thougts based on what you have here. One, if Creatoon Set Free is anything like the books I’ve read in the past, it sounds like what the authors were intending to do is help the reader understand what they were trying to communicate by limiting the scope of possible meanings of the word “relationality.” For I noticed even in your response that your extended definition (“if God forces some-one/thing to perform an action, he is still “relating” to them/it,”) of “relating” creates the very misunderstanding they are likely trying to avoid in positing a limited definition–that of equivocating terms. While your definition is relating in one sense, it is not relating as it sounds like they are trying to limit it to. Your definition is “two things being related by cause and effect whereby one is unilaterally acted upon by another.” whereas it sounds like their definition is limited to “two persons or things acting freely with one another in mutual cooperation.” So though I haven’t read the book, my interaction with other books of this type is such that they do not want to exhaust themselves with having to always specify which definition they are employing at any given time. This methodology, I argue, is different than that of a Calvinist who says, “this definition of sovereignty is not just a limited definition, I is the ONLY definition.” now If indeed the book renders such a statement as “this proposed definition of relationaltity is the ONLY definition,” the authors are then guilty of that which they usually attack.

    And I guess I don’t understand how the proposed definition of relationality by the authors excludes the relationality of the trinity. In fact, in boyd’s other works that aren’t explicitly open theism books, he is very adament about the trinity as the basis fo the rest of his framework. Furthermor, in one sermon series, you would often find him saying, “when you think about ‘me’ In the context of ‘we’ you reflect te trinity.” From Boyd’s perspective, the trinity is his basis for arguing that we are inextricably connected with one another, and, additionally, that the trinity relating freely within itself is precisely why we can rest assured that we were created to freely relate with one another and God (if indeed we have been “created in his image”). Boyd did not develop his views on OT devoid of the trinity, or with the trinity as an afterthought, but on the basis of how he understood the trinity to relate within itself. Again, I’m not familiar with the work you’re reading so all of this is based on what I’m understanding you to mean here. It’s likely I’m just msunderstanding your second point. Regardless, thanks for the post. Great thoughts from you as always. Provocative and fun to ponder.

    Grace and peace amigo,

    Aaron

    • Aaron,

      Thanks for stopping by my friend. Let me respond to your two paragraphs:

      Paragraph 1: My argument is that I think that at times OT falls prey to the same criticism they (rightly) charge Calvinists with: trying to win debates by definition. My definition is not “two things being related by cause and effect whereby one is unilaterally acted upon by another,” but that this is only one kind (mode) of relating. Regardless of whether one finds this type of relating praiseworthy or repugnant is irrelevant: what counts is not trying to exclude other nuances of a word or concept, swallowing them up inside one’s one preferred understanding. In my opinion OT is guilty of this at times. Why try to limit the scope of the concept at all? I fear that at times clarity has replaced charity.

      I think you point out that one must do this on occasion or else be buried under the weight of always clarifying the sense of the word in question. This is a totally valid point, especially within the medium Oord was writing in (single essay in a book), and while i concede the point overall, I still think it’s not hard to include a footnote at the beginning of an essay pointing out the definitions of key (contentious) terms specific to the essay. If nothing else, it makes for charitable writing. Also, in the interest of full disclosure: part of the impetus for my argument goes far beyond Oord’s essay. I have noticed this in other OT writings, and i think that my frustration finally boiled over with this essay. Like I said at the time, I was feeling kind of cranky 🙂

      Paragraph 2: “Boyd did not develop his views on OT devoid of the trinity, or with the trinity as an afterthought, but on the basis of how he understood the trinity to relate within itself.” Boyd, and most open theists, are big fans of perichoresis, an understanding of how the Triune God relates within itself. I agree that they emphasize this element of trinitarian thought. The issue here is likely my poor writing. My argument was supposed to be that one must allow the doctrine of God in it’s entirety to shape the terms of the discussion, not just the subtopic of the inner relations within the Trinity, as important as that is. I don’t believe that OT goes far enough on this point. I think concerns regarding libertarian free will and the God-world relation drives OT more than they care to admit, and while certain aspects of a Trinitarian-framed theology are appealing (eg perichoresis) to OT other key components are left beside the road, pieces that would not sit well with their model. God’s triune nature includes, but is not limited to, perichoresis, and I think the implications of a full trinitarian doctrine of God would be very difficult, if not impossible, for OT to stomach. I doubt that you are interested in going further down this rabbit hole given the size of this initial response, but if you are a glutton for punishment I am up for elaborating on this.

      One more thing: I understand how arrogant this sounds (look at me, i “get” the Trinity!). Nonetheless, I do think that OT in the end hasn’t done justice to the Trinity: yet.

      Thanks for stopping by man. Really do like having someone to talk to in the blogosphere. Hope to catch up soon.

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