The Cooptation of Relational Theology: Another Example of the Erasure of Women’s Contributions to Theology by Dirk von der Horst
Over the last couple of years, I started to notice “relational theology” crop up in what I considered unlikely contexts. I had previously associated the term primarily with the feminist and womanist work of Carter Heyward, Catherine Keller, Rita Nakashima Brock, Katie Geneva Canon, Karen Baker-Fletcher, Kelly Brown Douglas, and Sharon Welch, as well as the gay/feminist work of Gary David Comstock. In each of these thinkers, the pursuit of relationality as divinity was always linked to a profound wrestling with suffering and oppression. Furthermore, a clear diagnosis of individualism, transcendence, and other forms of disconnection as manifestations of patriarchal/hierarchal forms of subjectivity was central to the rationale for doing relational theology. As I experienced it in the 1990s, relational theology was simply a dimension of feminist theology. Forging through the searing pain of oppression to the roots of problems in order to propose radical solutions to real social evil, not general ruminations on divine being, was the first step.
My first sense that the basic meaning of “relational theology” had shifted occurred when I saw an open an “Open and Relational Theologies Group” at the American Academy of Religion. Some theologians whose work I like participate in the group – including Catherine Keller. My interest was piqued until I saw the actual themes and titles of papers given. The themes were fine (I’m not quite ready to follow queer theorist Lauren Berlant into having a problem with “love”), but I sensed a movement toward an abstraction of the dynamic relational praxis that clearly grounded previous relational theologies. Last year, one session focused on “Miracles in Theology and Twenty-First-Century Science.” I moved on.
Later, I noticed the term cropping up in the rare instances I bumped into Evangelical and Emergent church spaces on the internet. In light of the Emergent Church’s problem with privilege, it was clear that proclamations of “relation” did not have the same commitment to delving into the oppression/liberation dynamic as the central task of spiritual growth. Something was up. I needed to look into this some more.
My initial, preliminary findings confirmed my worst fears. A Google search for “relational theology” does not get us to feminists! If someone who has never heard of relational theology takes the most obvious route to learning something about it, its feminist roots are invisible. Yet again, the contributions of women to an intellectual movement have been erased – a pattern that happens with distressing regularity as Dale Spender demonstrates in her epic Women of Ideas (and What Men Have Done to Them).
In the new relational theology, feminist, womanist, and liberation theologies are optional. The rationale of the Open and Relational Theology group declares: “This Group brings together scholars of diverse interests and concerns. Prominent among those who participate are scholars who label themselves as process-oriented, openness-oriented, Wesleyan, feminist, liberationist, Arminian, trinitarian, evangelical, etc.” Theologies that start with analysis of oppression and domination are included under the umbrella of relational theologies – but they are not integral to the new understanding of relational theology. As my Google search confirmed, the result of feminism and womanism being “included” in the umbrella of “relational theologies” is that they have become peripheral to a theological movement to which they have made enormous contributions. Nowhere is this marginalization more apparent than in the fact that Heyward’s tour de force Touching Our Strength: The Erotic and Power and the Love of God is out of print, as is her breath-taking collection of essays, Our Passion for Justice: Images of Power, Sexuality, and Liberation. No one should be saying anything about relational theology without a thorough familiarity with all of Heyward’s work.
Not only has the rise of a larger category of “relational theology” marginalized feminism and womanism, it has removed the critical element, the hermeneutic of suspicion, from the theological task. The introduction to Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction begins with a synopsis of biblical narrative that is indistinguishable from an Evangelical one. The intertwined critiques of patriarchy and anti-Semitism by Rosemary Ruether, Carol Christ, Carter Heyward, and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza disappear in the absorption of “relational theology” into a Christian normalcy that bypasses the reality of inter-religious violence and colonial legacies. The Open and Relational Theology Group lists the following general assertions:
“Theology involves speculation about who God truly is and what God really does:
God’s primary characteristic is love
Creatures — at least humans — are genuinely free to make choices
God experiences others in some way analogous to how creatures experience others
Both creatures and God are relational beings, which means that both God and creatures are affected by others in give-and-take relationships
God experience changes, yet God’s nature or essence remains the same
Creatures are called to act in ways that please God and make the world a better place
The future is open — it is not predetermined by God
God’s expectations about the future are often partly dependent upon creaturely actions”
It is entirely possible to write theology according to these general principles without thinking about the significance of horrific events unleashed by kyriarchal forces. It is hard to see how one could begin with such innocuous principles and get to a religious vision that could genuinely subvert anything. In contrast, feminist relational theologians came to understand “relation” as key because of a keen understanding of power imbalances. Rita Nakashima Brock’s Journeys by Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power opens with a vivid analysis of the pervasiveness of child abuse. Carter Heyward’s The Redemption of God: A Theology of Mutual Relation opens with diary entries attesting to the alienation arising from a theology affirming transcendence and probed the work of Elie Wiesel as an example of non-relation. By questioning the very nature of power through an analysis of African-American literature, Sharon Welch’s A Feminist Ethic of Risk moved forward to a thoroughly relational understanding of divinity, critiquing Heyward’s formulation “ground of relation” as still too tied to an understanding of divinity as entity, opting for an understanding of God as adjective, not noun.
The radicality of Heyward’s and Welch’s theological proposals points to a tension within feminist relational approaches: the extent to which some form of theism can be recuperated. Heyward began her theological journey with a deep interest in the Death of God movement and Welch asserts that the God of classical theism is irrational and unworthy of worship. On the other hand, Catherine Keller, Rita Nakashima Brock, Monica Coleman, and, in her most recent work, Carol Christ, ground their theologies in a process metaphysics that affirms panentheism. In many of the newer relational theologies, however, “relation” is simply a way to paint a “kinder, gentler” theism (younger readers may not remember the first president Bush’s use of the phrase to paint over the continued brutality of Reagan’s policies in his presidency). Where Heyward asserts that “God is our power in mutual relation” – not a being that exists independently of the relational matrix – the newer relational theologians often sneak a God who exists independently of the world back into the equation.
Relational theology was a way I positioned myself as a theologian. With the cooptation of relational theology’s radical beginnings by a bland search to make God nice, I’ll have to find another vocabulary – or fight harder to get the critical element back in.
Dirk von der Horst is a visiting scholar at Graduate Theological Union. He earned his doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in Theology, Ethics, and Culture. He is the co-editor of Voices of Feminist Liberation: Writings in Celebration of Rosemary Radford Ruether (Equinox Publishing, 2012). Dirk can be followed on Twitter @dirkvonderhorst.