Janet's Problems with the Culture of Open and Relational Theology
Janet is a former student of mine, now in seminary. She is also former member of the open and relational movement. She was active in its social media platforms, listened to podcasts. and went to some conferences. But now she steers clear of the movement, even as she subscribes to many of its ideas. "It's not its ideas," she says, "it's the culture. I'm wishing for more."
As someone who identifies with the movement, I ask her for advice on how we might improve. She speaks of three things she wishes we would avoid.
Excessive Self-Promotion and Self-Celebration: First, she says, we should avoid excessive self-promotion and self-celebration. We should refrain from trumpeting our achievements - our publications, our podcasts, our talks - and instead cultivate an atmosphere of humility, focusing on the ideas, not personal validation. In her words: "Sometimes it seems like the open and relational movement is just an excuse for people, mostly male, to say: Look at me, I'm important." She finds this toxic.
Projecting Post-Evangelical Experience onto the World: Second, she says, we should avoid assuming that the experiences of post-evangelicals, who may have felt oppressed by images of an all-powerful God, are universal. "We're not all post-evangelicals," she says. She wishes for an open and relational culture that is more sensitive to the diverse spiritual journeys people undergo and that recognizes that not everybody's "issue" is whether or not God is all-powerful. She grows bored with preoccupations about what God can't do. She's more interested in what God can do.
Neglecting the Contemplative Side of Religious Life: Third, she says, we ought not overlook the importance of contemplative and spiritual practices that have been integral to religious life for centuries. Neglecting these practices too easily results in an overly intellectualized or abstract theology that may not resonate with individuals seeking a more experiential and contemplative approach to their faith. Encouraging contemplative practices, she adds, within open and relational theology can create a space for individuals to nurture their spiritual lives, fostering inner peace and a deeper connection with the Spirit.
I ask her if these were the only three, and she laughingly said there were a few more, but these are good places to start.
Regarding the first problem, I say that many open and relational theologians worry that their ideas won't gain a hearing unless they do so much self-promotion.
"Why do they want to gain a hearing?," she asks.
"They believe their ideas can help people and help make the world a better place," I say.
She is skeptical. She thinks there's too much ego, too much concern with personal validation and being recognized by others. She suspects, beneath it all, there's a kind of insecurity: a preoccupation with being known and seen. She calls it "a quest for merit badges." She wonders if the quest isn't the legacy of a monarchical vision of God, with its idea validation comes through approval by a higher authority.
I remind her that the ideas of open and relational theology have truly truly helped many people, especially those who have suffered from images of a tyrannical God, a bully in the sky. She knows that. She likes the ideas, but not the culture.
I tell her that many open and relational theologians will agree with her critique. “We want to help others,” I say, “not just promote ourselves. We know that our experiences are not normative for all, and we, too, seek a more contemplative approach to life.” She says she’ll give us another chance.