Relational theology: rationale

Relational theology: rationale

Submitted by frlarry on

All that exists, that has existed and that will exist before, during and after the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ can and must be understood in deliberately relational terms. In lending precision to these statements, it will be necessary to introduce formal terms that are undefined, but which exist as primitives to formalizing the meaning of other terms, much like the point, line, plane and incidence concepts of plane geometry, or the element, set and membership concepts of number theory and topology, or the element, operator and "structure" terms of abstract algebra1 .

These considerations can free us from the accumulated baggage of prior attempts to know ontological reality, the "noumena" or "ding-an-sich" that so obsessed Immanuel Kant. It can free us from the embarrassing position of having to postulate a dualistic reality, that which exists and that which we can know, with the latter not being merely a subset of the former, but distinct from it. Our understanding of what free will, for example, is, must be informed by the relational meaning of free will, a relational meaning that is valid both for our interior awareness and exterior reality, or it is not valid for either, and, contrary to Kant's view, our interior awareness is continually modifiable in every detail by our developing relationship with exterior reality. Thus, Kant's intuitions on "intuition" and "free will"2 were simply mistaken.

Our understanding of such fundamental concepts or realities as the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, etc., must also be expressed in relational terms. Indeed, what dogma has been declared regarding these things is officially expressed in relational terms (as I intend to show), and all other "knowledge" has merely been declared as "worthy" of belief insofar as it points us toward relational realities.

In contrast with the fundamental epistemological thesis of Kant, we have come to realize that the development of concepts and their relationships, as a means of understanding and working with the world, is a process that is guided, not so much by preexistent intuitions as by preexistent relationships. Thus, our sense of the three dimensional nature of the world is made possible by the fact that our vision is binocular. Our sense of time is made possible by the characteristics of memory, which, together with vision and other senses, gives us a framework for developing such concepts as motion, chronological precedence and duration. These concepts have relational validity in the natural human environment even though we find exceptions and distortions in relativistic extremes. Without the relational structure of sense and memory, our concepts for interacting with the world would be radically different, and, perhaps, functionally inadequate.

Furthermore, as we have come to understand our relationships in greater detail and nuance, we have developed more embracing theories to explain these relationships, without overthrowing or denying the relationships we observed in prior regimes. Thus, our intuitions are constantly subject to change, even though the underlying regime of relationships is already fully established (in the sense of God's design), as we encounter newer and hitherto unexplored regions of that regime.

Thus, in radical distinction from the Kantian view, I hold that our intuitions or models of reality, including spiritual reality, need not be constrained by a static and limited framework already etched in our understanding of reality. Far from de-legitimizing our intuitions, however, this perspective give us hope that our appreciation of higher theological realities can grow without limit.

In order to more rigorously establish the full thesis of John Henry Cardinal Newman on the development of doctrine, all that is needed, in theory, is a grasp of the relationship between developing theories that is comparable to that in the physical sciences. Namely, any theory with a pretense of being comprehensive must satisfy the following:

  1. The doctrinal content of prior theologies must be preserved intact. This means that the fundamental meaning of these doctrinal elements in the newer theory must not be changed in a way that invalidates the meaning that has already been established.
  2. Every doctrinal element which is explained in the prior theory must also be explained in the newer theory, albeit in a more fundamental way.
  3. The newer theory must serve to incorporate and explain (via interconnection) relationships which are recorded in scripture and tradition which were, perhaps, either overlooked or inadequately appreciated in prior theories.

I claim that theological theories that stand the best chance of accomplishing these aims are fundamentally relational in style and content.

It must also be said that the relational perspective requires the assistance of simile and metaphor to enable or enhance understanding of theological realities. Metaphors in theology take the place of physical models in physics. These metaphors are also called models when they are sufficiently descriptive of reality as to take on a special significance. Avery Cardinal Dulles, for example, uses the term model in his well-known work, Models of the Church. For example, we can describe the Church metaphorically as a fig tree, or as a mystical body, with Christ as the head. It is only the latter metaphor, however, that has superlative explanatory power. To assert the weaker power of lesser metaphors we typically reduce them rhetorically to similes.

Models have the advantage that they are quickly grasped in broad detail, and provide a useful scaffolding upon which to hang detailed relational characteristics. It is precisely the job of relational analysis to fill out or to critique a model. Dulles provides such relational analysis, for example, when he discusses the natural limitations of models of the Church.

The term mystery, applied to the Church, signifies many things. It implies that the Church is not fully intelligible to the finite mind of man, and that the reason for this lack of intelligibility is not the poverty but the richness of the Church itself. Like other supernatural mysteries, the Church is known by a kind of connaturality (as Thomas Aquinas and the classical theologians called it). We cannot fully objectify the Church because we are involved in it; we know it through a kind of intersubjectivity. Furthermore, the Church pertains to the mystery of Christ; Christ is carrying out in the Church his plan of redemption. He is dynamically at work in the Church through his Spirit3 .

We may say, by way of clarification, that the lens of connaturality by which we view the Church is simply the perspective of analogy with the human person, but that analogy operates at at least two levels: analogy of the Body of Christ to a human body (or, more properly, person), and the shared nature as persons of the members of the Church. To say that we cannot fully objectify the Church because we are involved, suggests that part of the reason we cannot objectify the Church is that we cannot objectify ourselves — we are not primarily objects, but freely acting and responsible subjects — and our membership as whole persons is integral to the meaning and purpose of the Church. To say that our perspective is, therefore, intersubjective, is to spell out the fact that we view the Church as one person (the member) to another (the Church). Finally, Dulles points out that Christ's membership and identification with the Church is made concrete and active (dynamic) through his ongoing work in the Church. Finally, Dulles points out that this work in the Church is mediated by the Holy Spirit.

To proceed more deeply into this particular discussion, we need to recognize that terms like "object" and "subject" are, in part, relational, and, in part, undefinable. That is to say, we must regard "object" and "subject" as primitive terms in theological language, terms whose meaning is ultimately found in specified relationships.

It is frequently pointed out, for example, that in some contexts, we view a person as an object, and in others as a subject. That is merely to say that at times a person is acted upon and at others is the actor. To go deeper, however, we recognize that this distinction is not merely a matter of grammatical usage. Rather, the freedom and the conscious vantage of a person, with attendant mediated perceptions of a shared objective reality upon which the free person acts, lifts a person above the mere causal flow of physical reality.

All of the terms of discourse in the above paragraph have obvious relational significance. The term freedom, however, in the sense of free moral agency, requires a deeper analysis. It is precisely this issue, and the combination of vantage and free moral agency, that the late Pope John Paul II focused on, prior to his papacy, in his core thesis, The Acting Person.

Once the problem is put in these terms, it immediately becomes evident that the analyses in this study are not going to be conducted on the level of consciousness alone, though they will necessarily include also the aspect of consciousness. If action is, as already mentioned, the special moment of revealing the person, then naturally we are concerned not with action as the intentional content constituted in consciousness, but instead, with that dynamic reality itself which simultaneously reveals the person as its efficacious subject. It is in this sense that in all our analyses we will consider action; and it is in this sense that we intend to exfoliate the person through action. At the same time, however, we must keep clearly in mind that action as the moment of the special apprehension of the person always manifests itself through consciousness - as does the person, whose essence the action discloses in a specific manner on the ground of the experience of man, particularly the inner experience. Accordingly, both person and action have to be discussed under the aspect of consciousness. Nevertheless, it seems evident that the manifestation of action under the aspect of consciousness is not the only reason why action - the act of the person - consists in acting consciously4 .
  • 1Even real and complex numbers and the "tuple" concept of finite and infinite dimensional mathematics can be defined in such primitive terms.
  • 2 as given in his Critique of Pure Reason
  • 3Models of the Church, Avery Cardinal Dulles. Random House, New York. pp. 9-10.
  • 4The Acting Person, Karol Wojtyla. Translated from the Polish by Andrzej Potocki. Quotation taken from part 4 of the introduction. Available in on-line form on


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