Open and Relational Theism: A Challenge for Catholic Theology

Ilia DelioRaimon Panikkar, one of the great but hidden lights of the twentieth century, wrote that cosmology and theology are intertwined: there is no cosmology without theology, and no theology without cosmology. The great Thomas Aquinas said something similar: a mistake about creation is a mistake about God. To put this in our contemporary idiom, I might say, tell me about your world, and I will tell you about your God. God and world cannot be separated, although we have made every philosophical effort to do so. It is not surprising that many people write in asking questions about original sin, evil, suffering, salvation, heaven, hell and the many doctrines that distinguish the Christian narrative. This narrative or story has been inscribed in the minds of hearts of many generations, to the extent that a vociferous defense of original sin and redemption due to fallenness has been on the rise in the 21st century. Yet, as we have said before, faith in the resurrection of Jesus was forged in the early Church using Greek philosophy to formulate the doctrines of faith. The Greek philosophers were star-gazers, although they were excellent deciphers of nature.  The rise of scholastic theology in the Middle Ages, forged together Greek philosophy and Christian doctrine, beginning with a new method of logical reasoning (rather than Scripture) and a renewed emphasis on Aristotle’s philosophy. The great “summa” of the Middle Ages was a comprehensive explanation of everything, including God, creation, the human person, the sacraments and Church. The brilliant summa of Thomas Aquinas became the official theology of the Catholic church in 1879. While there are aspects of Thomas’s theology that are beautifully stated, the core Greek philosophical foundation is outdated. As we have discussed in our various webinars and conferences, this theology no longer fits our scientific-technological age, although many scholars of Thomas Aquinas will argue otherwise. Up until now, there has been no viable alternative to the Thomistic synthesis; hence theology has largely become variations on an old theme. It is sort of like listening to an old LP—long playing album—that has been sitting in the attic for years; when played it distorts the sound of what could otherwise be a beautiful piece of music. Play a hundred warped LP records in 100 different rooms and you get an idea of what academic theology is like today, a concatenation of potentially beautiful, but warped music.

Despite the Catholic resistance to updating theology in light of modern science, Protestant theologians have been more open to the insights of modern science. The term “open theism,” a corollary of process theism, was coined in the 20th century to describe a new understanding of God in relation to the world.  In 1994 a group of evangelical scholars formed a symposium, and a later a book entitled, The Openness of God: A Biblical Challenge to the Traditional Understanding of God. Their contributions explored the topic of God’s relation to the world from a distinct vantage point with five specific concerns in mind—its biblical, historical, theological, philosophical and practical aspects. Open theism is based on the fundamental belief in a relational God which is the most apt description of God found in Scripture. According to the openness of God’s doctrine, God’s essential nature is love, and out of love God chose to bring into existence a world containing creatures endowed with the capacity to love him in return. As a personal being, God seeks a personal relationship with the creatures, so God is intensely interested in, and genuinely affected by, their actions and decisions. God is open to the world, and the world is open to God. Both Creator and creatures contribute to the ongoing course of events, and God experiences these events as they happen. God is not the “unmoved Mover” of Aristotle but “the most moved Mover” as described by the Jewish scholar, Abraham Heschel. God enjoys a highly interactive relation to the world wherein God’s creatures have significant freedom, in a world unfolding in novelty and creativity. Open theism arises from the conviction that love defines the very nature of God. Love is not merely an attribute or an activity of God—something God has or does—it is what God is in God’s very essence. Love defines God’s inner reality, and love characterizes God’s relation to all that is not God. God creates the world as an expression of the love that God is, and love not only accounts for God’s decision to create a world distinct from himself, love also comes to expression in all of God’s relations to the world. Out of love, therefore, God creates beings who themselves have the capacity to love—to enjoy loving relationships with God and with each other. In order to make creaturely love possible, God endows the creatures with the freedom, the ability to respond with love to God’s love for them. In giving those who bear God’s image the freedom to return love for love, God runs the risk that creatures might pursue their own goals rather than God’s. Despite their potential for rebellion, God’s commitment to their welfare remains unconditional. Since coercion has no place in love, their response to God’s love is a choice, not an inevitability. Since creatures are free and creative, they are self-determining, that is, God is not responsible for everything that happens in the world.

Perhaps what is most novel of open theism is that the decisions and actions of creatures contribute to the ongoing course of events. Open theism is defined by relationality; God and world are mutually related. God is genuinely related to the creaturely world and the creaturely world is intimately related to God. Hence, God is intimately involved in the affairs of the world, both acting within it and interacting with it. God affects the world, and the creaturely world affects God. Everything that happens has an effect on God so that God is not immune to the suffering of the world but is affected by it; God co-suffers and co-labors with the world, as it strives for freedom. At the same time, what happens in the world, indeed, whatever happens and no matter what happens, God’s commitment to the world is unconditional. God relentlessly lures the world into more being and life because God’s unconditional love is everlasting, inviting all creatures to accept the offer of divine love and join in fulfilling the promise and vision of life abundant.

Open theism finds its philosophical basis in the process philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne. These two great minds have addressed every major aspect of Christian doctrine in light of a new God-world relationship. Hartshorne, in particular, was a clear, logical thinker whose attention to philosophical details provides a viable alternative to Thomistic theology. Critics of open and relational theism, however, claim that process reality departs from the traditional understanding of God and diminishes God’s power, immutability and omniscience. Their criticisms are mental and semantic acrobatics that, fundamentally, belie the insights of modern science.

Richard Rice points out that the contrast between traditional theists and open theists is so stark that it is difficult to find a means of reconciliation. There seems to be no smooth transition from the “traditional” view of God to the open view because the contrasts between them are radically different. In fact, their differences are reminiscent of the contrast between scientific paradigms that Thomas Kuhn describes in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. On Kuhn’s account, the most noteworthy advances in science occur when “normal science,” the steady acquisition of data within a well-established, widely accepted perspective, accumulates enough “anomalies” to challenge its plausibility, and someone comes up with a significantly different approach. The result is a revolution, a radical large-scale transformation in the way people look at things. What is distinctive about such a transition is the incommensurability between the old and new paradigms. There is no clear path from one to the other. Within the new paradigm, everything looks different. In Kuhn’s words, “After a revolution scientists work in a different world.” Not surprisingly, it takes time for a new paradigm to catch on. There may be considerable resistance from those who have operated within the old, and then it can take a while before the value of the new paradigm becomes evident.

The interaction between open theists and traditional theologians is such that one has the sense they are operating from different paradigms. What open theists see as essential to the Christian view of God, classical theists view as problems that can be effectively solved within the classical paradigm. Open theism is not merely a corrective to outdated theological ideas but a sweeping vision that places everything we might say about God in a new light. God’s relation to the world looks different from the openness perspective. Kuhn invoked the notion of a paradigm shift to describe dramatic changes in scientific perspective. A paradigm is a set of data or beliefs that can shift over time with enough evidence or substantial reasons to support the shift, as well as communal acceptance of the new data. However, when the convictions of a theologian change, questions of a personal sort are raised that scientists typically do not face. As one of the characters in an Iain Pears novel asks, “How is that when a man of God shifts his opinion it proves the weakness of his views, and when a man of science does so it demonstrates the value of his method?” So, while paradigm shifts in either science or religion are not readily welcomed, they are far less welcome in religion than in science. Since theology is concerned with the essentials of salvation, theological investigation bears a burden from which scientific inquiry is exempt. For many, like Kuhn, science is better described as an account of “the community’s state of knowledge at a given time,” rather than a full, objective, true account of nature, which theology claims to make. While open and relational theism is a more credible way of understanding God, it is still vehemently resisted by detractors both within and outside Protestant and Catholic theologians. Rather than waiting for the Catholic Church to accept open and relational theism, therefore, it is best to treat the openness of God as a paradigm in the sense that Kuhn describes it—as a new way of looking at things, one that changes many previously accepted explanations.

There is so much more to say about open and relational theology because the need to move theology out of the Middle Ages has been intensifying since the twentieth century. The Center for Christogenesis is committed to engaging this paradigm shift and contribute to a new understanding of God in the 21st century. If we can begin to change our understanding of a God-world relationship, a deeply relational and unfolding process of divine-created life, then we might begin to reawaken a new zest for religion in our age, not as an institutional set of rules but as a new divine love energy deep within the ongoing dynamism of creativity, novelty and the spacetimemattering that is the unfolding future. Open and relational theism open up new windows onto the cathedral of the universe. It invites new imagination and creativity for expression of religious beliefs: What would religious art look like with open and relational theism?  What songs would we song as we communally gather in a mutually related God-world relationship?  How would preaching become a co-creative and co-relational process?  We are now beginning to hear the music played through our technological devices and it is brilliant and beautiful. God is not a safety net or a security blanket. The New Testament is clear: God is an adventure in love, and we are invited into the flow of spontaneity, play and a co-creative future.

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  1. Al Cannistraro on June 11, 2022 at 12:13 pm

    It’s so refreshing to see Catholic participation in efforts to take a stab at an updated cosmological/theological model that reflects contemporary thinking. I hope the model under discussion here will be permitted to further evolve and also that alternative alternatives will be considered for further development.


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