After my introduction to Pentecostal and Evangelical understandings of the Christian faith, I learned of the importance of having a personal relationship with Jesus. Even if God was distant, Jesus was close by. Although the popular theology that I imbibed could be described as romantic and even cloying in its orientation, it was attractive to people like me who grew up in rather formalized religious settings. The songs we sang to Jesus may have sounded a lot like the love longs we heard on the radio; they expressed our need to for intimacy with God. As Diana Butler Bass has shown in her recent book, Christianity After Religion, (Harper One, 2012), religion (defined institutionally) is no longer tenable. People are looking for something other than singing songs to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover.
Fortunately, in our search for spiritual intimacy we don’t have to settle for the “Jesus is my boyfriend” type of theology. There are options available, including the kind of “Relational Theology” explored in this “contemporary introduction.” Edited by Brint Montgomery, Tom Oord and Karen Winslow, this brief and readable introduction offers us a vision of theology that is rooted in the Wesleyan tradition. Composed of, by my quick count, of thirty-two short (3-page) chapters, written by nearly the same number of authors, the book is organized around four sections: “Doctrines of Theology in Relational Perspective;” “Biblical Witness in Relational Perspective;” “The Christian Life in Relational Perspective;” and “Ethics and Justice in Relational Perspective.” Topics covered range from the doctrine of the Trinity to God’s relationship to nature. Chapters explore such issues as the contribution of John Wesley, the authority of the Bible, the nature of pastoral ministry, and Jewish-Christian dialogue.
Each of these brief chapters introduces us to an aspect of relational theology, which is defined by co-editor Tom Oord, who provided me with a copy of the book, as affirming two principle ideas. First, that “God affects creatures in various ways.” It envisions and active and engaged God. Second, it affirms that “creatures affect God in various ways.” It’s this second affirmation that differentiates this form of the theology. It assumes that we can move or influence God. A key component of Relational Theology is its affirmation that God is Love. According to Oord’s introduction Relational Theology is a rather broad umbrella that includes such varied theologies as Missional, Arminian/Holiness, Feminist/Womanist, Open, Trinitarian, Process, Wesleyan, Liberation/Postcolonial, and just in case someone feels left out he adds – “Other.” Oord notes that adherents of this form of theology don’t necessarily embrace all of these forms. As one can see some of these versions could be considered liberal/progressive, while others not as much. If one needs a good descriptor of the attitude expressed by the authors of these chapters, one could use the phrase “generous orthodoxy” (Brian McLaren). But, it’s a generous orthodoxy with a Wesleyan spin.
In his chapter, which follows immediately after Oord’s introduction, Barry Callen notes that “relational theology has roots in the Pietist, Arminian, Wesleyan, Holiness, and Pentecostal traditions of Christianity.” The focus that emerges from these roots is upon a vision of a God who is “truly personal, loving, and not manipulative.” It contrasts with a Reformed/Calvinist vision of the “God-Creature” relationship that is “more static and predetermined.” It envisions a truly responsive relationship on the part of both God and Creature (p. 7). Callen sees this understanding present in the theology of John Wesley. Although it affirms divine sovereignty, it leaves room for the “possibility of the creature actively cooperating in God’s governance of this creation” (p. 8). As one should expect from a Wesleyan vision of theology, it affirms free will - that is, according to Brint Montgomery, one must assume that "God does not determine the course of every action . . . We are genuinely free to respond well or poorly to God, and we are therefore morally responsible" (p. 33).
For me one of the most important chapters is that written by Dennis Bratcher on “The Revelation and Inspiration of Scripture.” One of the important sides of the Wesleyan understanding of theology is that even in many of its evangelical forms there is a less rigid view of biblical authority. Even as there is room for God move in our midst, the Scriptures are understood in more relational terms and less in propositional form. Bratcher writes that while the Bible revelatory, “this does not mean Scripture is absolute, final, and therefore, the truth about everything. That is the position of Fundamentalism, literalism, and inerrancy.” In contrast to such a vision, he writes that “Scripture is revelatory in the precise sense that God reveals Himself in history in the dynamic of the community as they bear witness to ‘what we have seen and heard’ (Acts 4:20). Scripture is living and active. God continues to confront people in their own history.” It’s not that Bratcher has a low view of Scripture; rather he understands revelation to be a much larger category that includes the Scriptural witness but allows God to continue the conversation (p. 56).
Written with a lay audience in mind, the chapters communicate a truly generous and open orthodoxy as well as orthopraxy. It is a vision that warrants close attention, and can be, in my mind, the foundation for a fruitful conversation across the Christian community. Because the Relational Category includes both Process and Open theologies, there is an opportunity for conversation between moderate evangelicals and progressives.
Of course, this is simply an introductory statement. None of these chapters take the conversation into deeper waters. They open the conversation, but don’t end it. Although it almost functions as an introductory handbook to Relational Theology – that is, one can choose to read those sections of greatest interest – it can also be used by study groups or pub theology groups – as conversation starters. With the latter in mind, it would have been helpful if the authors of the essays had provided two or three discussion questions to be used by such groups, but in their absence group leaders can use their imagination and embrace a conversation with and about a God who seeks to be in relationship with the Creature. I can envision a very conversation emerging from the use of this excellent little book!