I find myself increasingly dissatisfied with the language of and divisions within Christian theology. The more liberal voices tend to gut any semblance of particularity out of theology to the extent that Christian belief/community/theology becomes unrecognizable to the traditions that gave birth to such voices. The more conservative voices are so focused on particularity that they fail even to accept that ideas about God held by other major Christian denominations are necessary and/or sufficient.
It is not easy for me to offer an alternative to the incessant arguing and line in the sand mentality that seems so prevalent among Christians on all sides of most debates. It’s not easy because the alternative I wish to offer is much more of an intuition than a well thought out or definable position. I’ll make the positive statement of my position as plainly as I know how:
Christian theology is only lived, understood, and elucidated in the form of relationship with God.
I would hope that such a simple statement is not all that controversial in it’s own right. What ought to make my intuition problematic is the underlying assertion that nearly all current theology fails to take on the form of a relationship with God.
To the conservative minded person who longs for particularity in theology, relationship comes across as a lens far too ambiguous and ethereal to be used for something as serious as embodying Christianity. Relying on relationship can feel like asking a business owner to certify deals by handshake.
To the liberal minded person who fears or has been harmed by particularity in theology, relationship comes across as a lens far too restrictive and dangerous to be used for the freedom empowered through Christianity. Requiring relationship can feel like asking an abused spouse to stay married.
But a healthy relationship is not healthy because you took vows. A healthy relationship is healthy because it embodies the qualities of a healthy relationship. And an abusive relationship isn’t a sign that relationship is unhealthy. An abusive relationship is an assertion of power that destroys rather than creates the space for healthy relationship.
Relationship is perhaps the most difficult concept to get my head around in the context of the radically individualistic modernism/postmodernism of our day. Relationship necessarily holds onto the particularity of its constituent members, but also creates a third entity that does not simply add the two parts together nor does it leave either the same. Relationship is a dynamic interplay of persons who can no more exist without the other than they can ever be the same person.
One of the more subtle and unexplored ways in which Christianity has devalued the lives and contributions of women is the sense in which it is so hard to even begin to see the relevance between theology as relationship and a more common statement of beliefs or a theological treatise. Educational systems through much of history have ensured that men, far more than women, are responsible for the words and arguments that have been written down and passed on through generations of Christendom. If I am right about the inherently relational context of theology done well, then it follows that the most profound contributions to theology were likely made by those who never had a voice in writing, but embodied theology through nurturing and caring for one another.
These women (and men) who lived out their relationship with God and one another sans writing provided the necessary context in which writing about theology could make the sense that it made and be copied forward to future generations. But any such writing was and necessarily remains a second order of theology on top of the primary reality of relationship. In my experience, the more a church tradition explicitly forbids forms of female leadership, the more that church tends to assert the value of analytic belief systems, statements, and arguments over actual relationships. But words outside of relationships mean nothing.
To do theology well is to deeply engage in relationship with God. Relationship is most deeply found not in the knowledge of another person, but in our desire and willingness to be known by the other. In the vulnerability of love, we find that our deepest, most protected, most fearful secrets are not discovered as reasons for leaving, but are embraced as pieces that make us who we are.
Knowing God doesn’t happen because we get the particularities just right. Knowing God also doesn’t happen because we reject the assumption that there is anything particular worth knowing. To know God fully is to be fully known by God.
I have no illusions that my focus and formulations of theology as relationship in any sense convey or contain the fullness of The Gospel. I only offer it because my intuition tells me that relationship is the most currently lacking but potentially fruitful lens through which to find new life in the midst of faltering traditions. Even if I should have any success in elucidating a sliver of meaning within The Gospel for my time and location, I fully expect that my words will seem utterly meaningless and unhelpful to a different time and place. That expectation is a necessary consequence of assuming words without relationship have no meaning.
I have tried elsewhere to express my intuition of the connection between narrative and emotional forms of knowledge. The formulation of theology as relationship above is an attempt at framing that same argument in terms of Christian theology. I suspect I shall spend most of my life attempting to clarify and make sense out of what any of this actually means and how it is all connected.
18 thoughts on “Theology as Relationship”
Thanks Jeremy for sharing. Relationship is a key concept, as well as practice of being a disciple of Jesus. You have helped inform me as I prepare to preach about what it means to Remember Your Baptism.