O is for Open & Relational


Preview for this Sunday School (January 7)

Once in a great while, a massive shift happens in the way that Christians think about their faith. This happened 500 years ago with the protestant Reformation and it happened again after WWII in the 20th century.

The world had changed in several ways and for some people they way that they thought about faith needed to change as well. Technology impacted everything from war (holocaust & atomic bomb) to agriculture, entertainment (TV) to air travel. Global connections were changing which impacted everything from trade to religious pluralism.

 

One of the most vibrant aspects of that theological evolution has caused a major adjustment in the way that concepts like salvation, community, creation, and even ‘God’ are conceived of and participated in.

This innovative way of conceiving faith and spirituality has some very attractive advantages for living in our era. [1]

 

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 come 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 our 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 an abbreviated list of themes that a friend of mine provides:

  1. God’s primary characteristic is love.
  2. Creatures – at least humans – are genuinely free to make choices pertaining to their salvation.
  3. God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others.
  4. Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships.
  5. God’s experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence is unchanging.
  6. God takes calculated risks, because God is not all-controlling.
  7. Creatures are called to act in loving ways that please God and make the world a better place.
  8. The future is open; it is not predetermined or fully known by God.
  9. God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions.

Although everlasting, God experiences time in a way analogous to

[1] These changes are far being the most popular expression of Christianity in N. America, but they are heavily influential in behind-the-scenes conversations and in academic circles. 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.

 

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