Why Relational Theism Really Matters

by Tyron Inbody

“Nothing happens that is not the will of God.”

This is not only the reassurance offered by many Christian pastors, counselors, and friends in times of horrible suffering. It is the logical conclusion of Christian classical theism.

A friend dies at age 45 of uterine cancer, a teen aged daughter is killed head on by a drunk driver, a housing bubble pops and you lose your house and retirement plan at age 55, a plane crashes at 35,000 feet because of a mechanical failure, a genocide is carried out in Syria—these are horrible events. But for many Christians they are not meaningless because God willed them. Therefore, if spiritually mature, we should submit to God’s will and give thanks for these moments.

Why? Because they are not genuinely evil; the evils are only apparent. They are part of God’s plan. They have their place in the perfectly good will of God and so are not genuine evils (our lives would not have been better off without these). If we saw everything from God’s perspective, we would recognize this.

As hard as this assurance is to accept emotionally at the moment of suffering, we are assured these awful happenings are not meaningless. This, I am convinced, is the most powerful appeal of this hard to accept teaching of classical theism. The deepest threat to human existence, I believe, is not death but meaninglessness.

The problem is this: although divine determinism may be logically possible with belief in our freedom, it is not plausible if we believe in genuine freedom. Freedom is not just the absence of some external coercion (a gun to my head). Freedom means we are active agents in what happens in our lives along with God’s agency.

Consequently, many Christians are left with a dilemma: either give thanks for what it feels wrong to give thanks for, or conclude there is no God which is compatible with human freedom. This is the most powerful argument of most atheism. I agree with the atheists at this point. Why believe in let alone worship such a God? Indeed, with such a God, who needs a Devil?

Thankfully, there is another concept of God which avoids this dilemma. It is is more biblical, more theologically convincing, and more compatible with our lives as we live them day by day. It is called relational theism, and the tragedy is that most Christians are not aware of this more plausible concept of God.

My argument is that Tom Oord’s The Uncontrolling Love of God and other concepts of relational theism are genuine alternatives to our instinctive outrage. More than an alternative to classical theism, it is a matter of life and death in the practice of pastors, counselors, and members of the Christian community. What we believe makes a difference in our lives emotionally, spiritually, and practically. I claim this superiority to classic theism for three reasons:

First, relational theism is more consistent with the intuitions, beliefs, and practices of the Christian life. What possible difference could prayer make if God is eternal, impassible and controlling power? What real relationship is present if all things are already “real” and “willed” and “fixed” in the eternal life of God? Furthermore, what could love mean apart from mutually “response-able” relationships between God and us? Love by definition means reciprocity, so an unfeeling, unmoved being cannot love. The love of God would be empty of any meaning.

Second, relational theism is more faithful to the whole of the biblical witness, especially the christological focus of scripture, than is classical theism. To be sure, there are verses and stories which seem plausibly to imply an omnipotent controller of history and each life. The dominant views of God in the Bible, however, are images of God as repentant (changing direction), broken-hearted, filled with pain and sorrow, and above all, reciprocating love and desiring human well being in a context where creation is not yet shalom.

Most prominently, the life of Jesus, the incarnation, and a trinitarian understanding of God all imply relationships within God and between God and creation where God gives himself in unconditional love. This is not a God who is eternal (timeless) but is everlasting in love and faithfulness, luring and responsive to creatures.

Third, relational theism is conceptually superior to classical theism. Given the distinction between possibility, plausibility, and certainty, I admit classical theism is logically possible, at least if you can baldly assert the compatibility between divine omnipotence and human freedom. I find this to be nonsense, however, if human freedom is not simply the mere absence of external coercion but effective creatural agency that can have as powerful of an impact on the future as God’s own agency.

Few Christians want to argue absolute certainty concerning our concept of God. In this world at least only God knows for sure. A better question is, what kind of theism is most plausible given human experience? Traditional theism is simply beyond my boggle point!

That God acts to promote the well being of the whole creation is clear in scripture and consistent with a good and loving God. That God wills, causes, permits, or allows all the suffering of the world, being the only power to do so, seems to me to be conceptual gobbledygook. I find it most plausible that God and we create the future together.

Any theology that does not enhance that co-creation in service of the well-being of life is incompatible with God as creator, redeemer, and sanctifier. It matters what kind of theists we are! Relational theism is not a theology just for professional theologians like Sanders and Oord, but for every Christian pastor, counselor, and member of the Body of Christ who loves God and seeks the well being of the whole creation in the midst of genuine suffering and evil. It matters what kind of theism we advocate.