When I hear the phrase 'open and relational theology', I think not simply of the openness of God but also of an open space in the heart, free from compulsion, that is free to respond to each circumstance in life with creativity and love. In this open space, I believe the Spirit is present. God, too, is an open space: a spacious heart in whose consciousness the universe unfolds. If we are made in God's image, might we too become open spaces? Isn't that part of our calling? But let me back up:
Many years ago, a wise priest said to me, "The three most important spiritual qualities in life are wisdom, compassion, and interior freedom." I had heard of wisdom and compassion, but the phrase "interior freedom" was new to me. He did not have in mind the freedom to do anything you want to do; he had in mind the freedom to respond to whatever happens to you in a free, non-compulsive way. As a Christian, he saw such freedom as a place in the heart that is like an open space: a spacious horizon that is free from compulsion and free for creativity and love. "It is the freshness of God inside you," he said. "It is God's openness inside you." I sensed in him this kind of freedom.
This is a freedom I wish we all had, myself much included. I wish more politicians had it; I wish more parents and grandparents had it; I wish it were fostered in schools in whatever ways are possible. It is, I believe, the spirit of open and relational theology in human form. I see it in Zen Master Hakuin (1686-1769) in the story below. It transcends religious affiliations but can be fostered by many religious traditions. If you believe in God, as I do, you can understand it as a gift from God or as the living presence of God. But if you are non-theistic, you can simply think of it as a spacious place in the heart that is good for you and for the world. One way or another, let there be more non-compulsive openness.
Is That So?
The Zen master Hakuin was praised by his neighbors as one living a pure life.
A beautiful Japanese girl whose parents owned a food store lived near him. Suddenly, without any warning, her parents discovered she was with child.
This made her parents very angry. She would not confess who the man was, but after much harassment at last named Hakuin.
In great anger the parents went to the master. "Is that so?" was all he would say.
After the child was born it was brought to Hakuin. By this time he had lost his reputation, which did not trouble him, but he took very good care of the child. He obtained milk from his neighbors and everything else the little one needed.
A year later the girl-mother could stand it no longer. She told her parents the truth - that the real father of the child was a young man who worked in the fishmarket.
The mother and father of the girl at once went to Hakuin to ask his forgiveness, to apologize at length, and to get the child back again.
Hakuin was willing. In yielding the child, all he said was: "Is that so?"
Interior freedom is the freedom to receive the circumstances that confront you, whether pleasant or unpleasant, in a non-compulsive way; and to respond creatively, and if possible lovingly, to the situation at hand. The appropriate response can be to laugh with someone laughing, to cry with someone crying, to stand up for justice in the presence of injustice, or to take a nap after a long, hard day. It is freedom from compulsion and the ability to adjust to each situation and choose a suitable response.
This freedom arises from a place within your heart that is non-compulsive and open, imbued with a sense of peace and trust. This trust is not about believing that everything is fine or predestined, but rather about recognizing that, regardless of the circumstances, there is a way to respond that aligns with the situation. Interior freedom is a spacious realm within the heart, rooted in the trust of fresh possibilities for creative responses.
From the perspective of process theology, these possibilities originate from the very essence of the universe, from God. They are intuited rather than deduced. Often, these possibilities are expressed in acts of love and compassion. Openness to such possibilities does not simply mean having a conscience; love may require defying social conventions or being indifferent to them. In the story below, for example, Hakuin exemplifies interior freedom by willingly disregarding his reputation, embracing the child he did not father, and eventually returning the child. He demonstrates flexibility and responsiveness to each new situation, without excessive concern for others' perception of him. He embodies inner freedom.
For most of us, this freedom comes by degree, and it comes and goes. We may experience varying degrees of inward freedom at different stages of our lives. The purpose of Zen practice is to cultivate the capacity to be inwardly free in all circumstances. For the Zen Christian, this freedom lies at the core of faith. Faith is not about believing things about God, although such beliefs are important. It is about trusting in the availability of fresh possibilities from a Spirit that is not reducible to categories such as "inner" and "outer." Interior freedom is faith—a means of connecting with the Spirit.
Open and relational (process) theologians say that the Spirit is inherently relational. It does not exist in isolation, confined to a remote corner of the universe. Rather, it is an integral part of the living fabric that interconnects all things. The Spirit depends on the existence of the very elements it connects.
Likewise, interior freedom is relational. The circumstances we encounter do not solely belong to us; they are shared by everyone and everything that influences us and those we impact in return. We are interconnected in this collective journey.
In the Zen story above, the circumstances involve Hakuin, the young girl, her parents, and the child. Interior freedom empowers Hakuin to respond freely and lovingly to the circumstances at hand. In Hakuin's case, this freedom encompasses accepting what is given, including the accusations against him, and releasing attachment to his own reputation. These aspects are encapsulated in his simple phrase: "Is that so." He lives from the center of things, from the Spirit. He is inwardly free.