The Cooptation of Relational Theology: Another Example of the Erasure of Women’s Contributions to Theology by Dirk von der Horst


DirkThe meaning of relational theology has changed, and not for the better.

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.



Categories: Feminist Theology

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13 replies

  1. Yikes, I suspected something like this!!! Quite horrifying how white male theologians continue to ignore what they want to ignore.

    And life goes on in the AAR.


  2. This! I have an economic critique of the recent relational theologies, but THIS! too!Thanks Dirk!


  3. Excellent posting! I had not thought about this in the context you address. I will be passing this on to a friend who is currently working on her dissertation.


  4. It’s a familiar pattern: a movement for justice tamed into ritual and platitudes. Keep speaking out: anyone who believes, “Creatures are called to act in ways that please God and make the world a better place,” should know that they’re stuck with the fact that it requires them to struggle against sexism, racism, homophobia and economic injustice.


  5. Sadly, the people with whom I’d most like to discuss this excellent article won’t read beyond the first sentence or two – not because they aren’t well-educated professionals but because they aren’t theologians and the terms used are not familiar to them. I wish you had a lay-friendly version available for sharing.


  6. Hi Dirk,
    I really appreciate this post. This is a very sad erasure; and so contrary to what I hoped a relational theology group would bring about… I find the disappearance of Heyward’s work, that you mention, particularly disturbing. Her books helped teach me that my particular experience in theistic religion was abusive; and that we can say “Yes,” to ourselves and no to this ‘other’ divinity.
    Process thought really challenges me to see space and life differently; and seeing in this way, I have found, is definitely work. It is so easy, as your post highlights, to slip something static and un-relational into this space; and for this substitution to go unnoticed. The kind of relational “counter-power,” ( in Keller’s terms), that many feminist relational theologians describe, requires constant vigilance and/or intentionality.

    I also particularly appreciate the language you use and highlight in your post regarding “niceness” (or “kinder, gentler” theism). This reminds me of a musical, “Into the Woods.” The first act tells the story of several fairy tales as they are taught to us when we are children. In the second act, everything goes awry: everyone’s motivations and methods come into question. The Witch sings to everyone,

    “You’re so nice.
    You’re not good,
    You’re not bad,
    You’re just nice.
    I’m not good,
    I’m not nice,
    I’m just right.
    I’m the Witch.
    You’re the world.”

    “Niceness” covers a great deal of the harm we do to one another.

    Thank you again for your post; and for continually bringing light to these kinds of erasures.


  7. No big surprise here, no mention of Mary Daly, who broke down the doors of the academy to radical feminist thinking that did not include working with men at all. I’m still of the position the patriarchy is so contaminated, that women should keep it at length with a ten foot poll. This is what men do, they steal women’s ideas, they erase the ideas or they assimilate the ideas so that we don’t have a clear lineage to women’s past, present and continued herstorical future.


  8. You know, we can have these discussions till the cows come in, but we know about patriarchal erasure of women. We know men have killed women and burned them to death, we know that men are at war with women worldwide. We know all this. So how do we stop men from stealing our work, from killing us in childbirth, and from destroying our spiritual lives? How do we make sure that the work of visionaries like Carter Heyward, and Mary Daly, and Dale Spender remain alive and taught till the end of time?


  9. Brilliant analytic post. Thank you.


  10. Nice = women’s death. There is no point to being nice to the conquerers, the destroyers, the thieves of women’s souls.

    We need extreme answers, and we need to be vigilent. The destroyers are out there, they will erase all this work, and they are doing it now. Right this minute. I have my ideas, but I think the women of this blog just aren’t ready for it. They’re being too nice!


  11. As someone who has studied process theology and wrote a dissertation on Carter Heyward, I feel especially called to say something in response to my friend Dirk’s post. I have not read Dale Spender but I don’t find difficult to believe that women’s contributions are being regularly erased and coopted by patriarchy. The case that Dirk points out may well be one of the many, and we should all be listening to his words as a call not just to remember the feminist roots of relational theology but to keep probing, refining and living it, especially if we teach theology in any form. Yet I disagree on Dirk’s implication that abstraction and metaphysical talk about the divine are simply ways of escaping the concreteness of reality. They might be, but they do not have to be. In the case in point, what happened is that some evangelicals approached John Cobb and other “classic” process thinkers, who have been more than willing to share their vision. As a result, there is this AAR group, and there are people like Montgomery, Oord, and Winslow who write books such: Relational Theology: A Contemporary Introduction. Given their background and their audience, I think that the content of their books amounts to no less than a revolution. That is, relative to them, the abstractions of process theology, such as those quoted from the AAR group description, have a huge impact. I do not agree with Dirk when he says that such principles are “innocuous”. They are not innocuous at all, in certain contexts. Think of traditional calvinism and how many people are still affected by it in America. This is not to say that working with abstractions in theology is not dangerous, but to say that the opposition between abstract and concrete, that I read as one of the underlying assumptions of Dirk’s essay, is too simple to be true. That said, as a member of the process community, I am not satisfied with the complacency that we often show in our conferences about our abstractions, our so-well-crafted “definitions” of the divine. That is boring, bordering on idolatry, and amounts to a betrayal of the main principle of process theology, that is, that abstractions must be useful for a deeper understanding, which is always also a transformation of action, otherwise they must be thrown away. Context is the key. Therefore, if I ever write or teach something simply repeating the list posted on the AAR group description, please tell me to stop saying platitudes, because in my case that’s what I would be doing. I agree that the favorite strategy of liberal theology is inclusion, which ends up making everything bland. Dirk is perfectly right in pointing out the Open and Relational Theology Group at AAR is doing that, yet it is only one case of a much more general trend. I do not know if feminist relational theology was so alive and vibrant in the 1990s as Dirk seems to suggest. I landed in the U.S. only at the end of 1999, and perhaps I missed something. In any case, it is on us who do not agree on the inclusion strategy of liberal theology to do something, create alternatives within and without such AAR group, and so on. This is a “call to myself” as well, because for all my proclamations that the abstractions of process theology can be useful, I have not yet been able to write a book which shows precisely that, in relation to Carter Heyward’s erotic theology. But I don’t think that we can expect liberal theologians to do anything different than they do. I do find useful some of the queer theology that I am reading, such as Althaus-Reid. She is good at not making her concepts some new objects of worship. It is, of course, difficult when one lives on the fringes of a system dominated by nicety to keep doing any sort of meaningful intellectual work, that is, something that does not fall either in platitudes or in ideology. Yet there is not other place I can live but the one I do live in.


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