Open and Relational Theology (Thomas Jay Oord) -- Review


OPEN AND RELATIONAL THEOLOGY: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas. By Thomas Jay Oord. Nampa, ID: SacraSage Press, 2021. Xi + 175 pages.

                One of the big questions faced by people of faith, especially Christians, has to do with whether the future is open or closed? That is, has God predetermined the flow of history, or is the future open and unknown so that we each contribute to its development? For some the idea that the future is predetermined by God is comforting. If God is in control, then if God is good God will bring about a good future. We just have to trust that God is good. That vision of the future is less comforting to many others because it seems to undermine our human participation in life. In other words, if there is no freedom to determine our own future then we would appear to be preprogrammed robots. In other words, we’re just pieces in a video game having no say in the way life develops. Wrapped up in this conversation is the question of evil and suffering. If God is in total control of everything then doesn’t that mean God is responsible for evil and suffering? If so, how do we reconcile that idea with the claim that God is love? Now, we could, and many do, appeal to mystery. In other words, some things lie beyond our understanding, so we need to let them go. For many that works but for many others, it doesn't. One response to what some call "conventional theology" is to follow the lead of a movement that has come to be known as "Open and Relational Theology."

                So, what is “Open and Relational Theology?” While there have been several highly detailed scholarly explorations of "Open and Relational Theology," there has been a need for something more basic. That is what Thomas Jay Oord provides in this book. I should note that this movement is not monolithic and so it is best to use the word “movement” to describe what has emerged over the past few decades. It includes Process Theology, which is rooted in the philosophical writings of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, among others. It also includes Open Theism, which has more evangelical roots (especially Wesleyan theology). Among those who have joined up in this movement is Tom Oord, who has served as an evangelist for this movement. In this effort, he has often bridged the Process and Open Theism portions of the movement.

                Oord formerly taught at Northwest Nazarene University but is now affiliated with Northwind Theological Seminary, where he directs doctoral students exploring Open and Relational Theology, as well as the Center for Open and Relational Theology, which serves as a clearinghouse for resources and relationships in the movement. He has written widely in the area of theology, including books on the nature of love and the relationship between religion and science. While he has written for the academic guild, he has also committed himself to making this vision of theology accessible to the non-specialist. That is what we have here in this introduction.

                I would like to take note of two previous books that set up this introduction. The first of Oord’s books, The Uncontrolling Love of God: An Open and Relational Account of Providence, lays out his concept of “essential kenosis.” This is a more academic work that was followed up by his more accessible book dealing with the question of suffering and evil and whether one can believe in God. That book is titled God Can't: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils. As the title suggests, Tom argues that if God is love, and love is non-coercive, then there are things that lie outside God’s control. This introduction follows in the vein of God Can’t, but offers a broader definition of the theology that undergirds that book.

                In Openand Relational Theology Tom seeks to present this movement in a way that makes it attractive to those who are questioning whether they can believe in God or simply are looking for a theology that makes more sense of their reality. In other words, a theology that doesn’t posit a predetermined future.  This isn't a full-fledged systemic theology. It doesn't explore in great detail specific matters of theology such as Christology, ecclesiology, or pneumatology. In this book, Tom provides a foundation for further conversation that might take up those topics from an “open and relational” perspective. He is interested here in defining terms such as "open" and "relational" as well as give an introductory definition of what he means by God who is love. The former term focuses on the way the future unfolds—it is open. The latter focuses on how God interacts with creation—it is relational. In the course of this discussion, of course, we gain a greater understanding of the nature of God who is revealed in the person of Jesus and how God is present in and with creation, or better how all things are present in God (panentheism).

                As Tom writes in the opening chapter the reason why this movement emerged is that people are looking for a better way of understanding God in light of questions about suffering and evil, as well as free will. The God Tom introduces us to seeks to be in relationship with creation rather than standing distant from creation. God, as Tom reveals, is loving and compassionate rather than controlling and critical.  Tom acknowledges that open and relational theology comes in many forms, so there is no one uniform vision. As to why the movement is growing, the reason is that it seems to answer “big questions.” It also seems to fit better with Scripture and the logic of love, as well as intuition, among other reasons. Ultimately, it might simply be that it affirms that we have the freedom to choose our future.   

                Standing at the center of Tom's vision of God is love. It is the foundational element in his theology and the foundation for understanding how God relates to creation. Part of this conversation has to do with how God creates, and from this perspective creation is ongoing. It embraces evolution as a process but insists that God is present in and with the process. Thus, he argues this theology is pro-science but not given to scientism. The book also addresses questions of salvation and what that looks like. In that vein, Tom notes that if we affirm that God is love, then it is impossible to affirm the idea that God might condemn persons to eternal torment in hell. That doesn't mean he is embracing universalism. While some in the movement do, but not all (Tom doesn’t reveal where he stands on that question). That's not the point here. The point is one of whether a loving God can inflict eternal punishment on human beings.

                Tom offers this book up as an invitation to those who are questioning their faith to embrace what he calls "life-changing ideas." For all those who find "conventional theology" unattractive, here is a vision of God that is very different and that offers a way of living that is faithful to the way of Jesus. Now, not everyone will find this attractive. The vision of God offered here lacks the omnipotence and power that many expect of God. This God might be "too small" in the eyes of some and yet it makes a lot of sense intuitively. As Tom notes, we tend to live our lives as if we have free will and the future is open.

                While this book is offered up as an introduction, Tom recognizes that people will want to dive deeper into "Open and Relational Theology." So, with that in mind, he provides a listing of resources that speak to specific dimensions of theology from an "Open and Relational Theology." Thus, we will find resources that cover everything from atonement to sexuality and marriage. Some of the books are written by Process Theologians. Others by Open Theists. And full acknowledgment, Tom mentions my own work under biblical studies and church and ecclesiology. Thus, I am numbered among those who are part of this movement.

                I highly recommend Open and Relational Theology: An Introduction to Life-Changing Ideas as a first read for anyone interested in discovering what Open and Relational Theology is all about. Tom isn’t shy about advocating for this vision of theology. Some of us might be a bit more cautious in our presentations of what this involves, but as I noted earlier, Tom is something of an evangelist for the movement. Thus, he wants to convert the reader to his vision of God. While I identify with the movement and commend the book as an important invitation to the movement, I do have a concern. That concern has to do with an apparent lack of diversity within the movement. The majority of leading spokespersons for the movement, especially those who write about it and host podcasts tend to be white males (this includes me as well as Tom). I have wondered why this is true. I don’t have an answer, but I feel that it's necessary to raise the concern even as I serve as an advocate for the movement. So, could it be that this open-ended theology, while seemingly giving a logical answer to the question of why evil and suffering exist if God is good and loving, doesn’t appear to offer a truly liberating message? That is, a God who suffers with us might be comforting, but it doesn’t change the situation people find themselves in. So, if this movement is to offer the best vision of God these questions will need to be addressed. Nevertheless, this is a compelling vision of God and of the future that has enticed me and that I believe is worth exploring. In that regard, Tom provides a helpful starting place for that exploration in this introduction.


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