Relational Theology and Relational Psychotherapy

By Donn Peters

Are we aware of our own biases in the kind of God we create?

Molly’s Story

Molly’s God was not a relational God, but she desperately needed a relational therapist. Molly grew up in a conservative Christion home. She attended churches that presented to Gospel as a clear choice between right and wrong, with the catch that if you chose wrongly, you would spend eternity in hell. Primary to her experience was that she was “in it alone”. No one was there to hear her questions and concerns. They were there to tell her what to think and what to choose. She found this somehow attractive and repelling all at once.

Molly had internalized a version of God that was primarily a lawgiver and judge. He gave the law, which is very clear, and judged her failings to keep the law and seemed not to care about her experience.

In working with her I chose to take a curious and collaborative stance with her. I was interested in how she became to be the person she was with me. I had to remind her that I was curious and was not seeking to judge her but wanted to get to know her. I also acknowledged my biases, particularly around religious issues. Often, I would ask her “Do you have any responses to how I’m interacting with you today?” Or “How is it for you to be in this relationship with me?”

Open and Relational Theology

Thomas Jay Oord has been writing on the topic of Open and Relational Theology for more than 20 years. Along the way, he found it necessary to redefine some historical theological concepts. Primary among these was the re-definition of love. Whereas classical theology had defined a loving God as a bit capricious, sometimes nurturing and caring while at other times cruel and uncaring, Tom’s contribution is to see God’s love as uncontrolling. A controlling love coerces an uncontrolling love influences. A controlling love operates by fear and threats of punishment. Uncontrolling love respects the autonomy of the individual. A God who uses controlling love stands apart, outside of our experience issuing commands and consequences for not following them. A God who uses uncontrolling love experiences our pains and joys and is “in it” with us.

Open Future – This issue addresses God’s foreknowledge. Does God know the future? Open theologians say God can only know what is knowable, the future has not happened yet and is therefore unknowable.

Relational God – What are God’s primary attributes? Classical theology defines God’s nature as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence which emphasize God’s power and control. Relational theologians say God’s primary attribute is love, all else is subordinate to love. As a loving God, God cannot control but only influence humans. As a loving God, God seeks a relationship with us humans. Rather than being seen primarily as the lawgiver and judge God is seen as the “fellow traveler” who is moved by our experiences.

Theodicy – The question that bedevils Christian theologians and philosophers of all sorts is the problem of evil. It is the central question in the book of Job. In the history of thought, the problem of evil is stated as the theodicy trilemma and is presented as early as Epicurus in De Ira Dei, 13, 20-2 and stated as 1. If God is unable to prevent evil, then he is not all-powerful. 2.1 If God is not willing to prevent evil, then he is not all-good. 3. If God is both willing and able to prevent evil, then why does evil exist? David Hume restated it as “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then He is impotent. Is He able but not willing? Then He is malevolent. Is He both able and willing? Whence then is evil?”

Relational Psychology

Relational psychology employs relational rather than mechanistic metaphors. During Sigmund Freud’s (1856-1939) time the major technological achievement was the invention was the steam engine. Water heated to steam could be harnessed to do useful work. Freud’s theory changed over the years as he thought more deeply about the nature of the human psyche. By 1923 he published “The Ego and the Id” which became known as his structural theory. In keeping with the mechanistic metaphor of the steam engine, he saw the id as a seething cauldron of incestuous and murderous desires. This energy, which he called libido was harnessed by the ego to perform useful work of the psyche. Later he added the idea of a superego that functioned much like a whistle on the steam engine, tooting its warning when the pressure became too high.

Freud was following the tradition of Descartes and Newton in describing human functioning using machine metaphors. There was a significant amount of pushback, especially from the religious thinkers of the time, but eventually, the ideas took hold. For example, Neuroscientists believe they are explaining human behavior when they can reduce it to a complex machine-like set of efficient causes.

Freud died in 1939 after emigrating to London from his beloved Vienna in 1938. Prior to his death, he exerted strong control over the psychoanalytic movement. Early followers became heretics and were disbanded because of ideas or practices deemed non-compliant with the model he developed. After his death, a few brave souls in the British Psychoanalytic Society began to publish new ideas. While the new ideas produced many controversies those putting forth the ideas were not summarily dismissed.

There arose a great controversy between Anna Freud, Sigmund’s never-married daughter, protector of the tradition, and Melanie Klein. The differences are hard to understand by the outsider, and therefore won’t be mentioned here except to say they brought about the “controversial discussions” of 1942 and 43. Two important names came to the forefront Ronald Fairbairn and Donald Winnicott. Fairbairn changed the nature of libido. Freud’s libido in blind mechanistic fashion sought only discharge, Fairbairn’s libido was “object seeking” or better understood as relationship seeking. They solved the differences in the name of peace but at the cost of metatheoretical and theoretical integrity.

In the years after the war, many of Freud’s followers emigrated to America. One such person was Heinz Kohut who left Vienna shortly after Freud. He developed Psychoanalytic Self Psychology which borrowed ideas from the British group. Harry Stack Sullivan a non-analyst but reader of Freud developed ideas that were to become Psychoanalytic Interpersonal Psychology. Contemporary analysts such as Robert Stolorow, Stephen Mitchell, and Estelle Shane furthered the development of what has become known as Relational Psychoanalysis.

The relational therapist fosters a spirit of curiosity and collaboration. The effect of these changes was to replace mechanistic metaphors with relational metaphors. Donald Winnicott changed the basic metaphor from a steam engine to a mother with baby which focuses on the development of the self through relational interactions between the mother and baby. This led to a plethora of research focusing on early mother-infant interactions.

Other changes in the therapeutic process were the establishment of a spirit of curiosity and collaboration rather than a spirit of the “knowing analyst” leading the self-deceiving patient to the truth. One other change of note was that the contemporary analyst saw themselves as active rather than passive in the co-creation of the therapeutic relationship.

The relational analyst is aware of his/her own biases. This includes a deep awareness of the analysts own inner world. His/her personal contributions and organizing principles to the treatment setting. It involves a minute-by-minute awareness of the transference-countertransference fluctuations in the interactions with the clients or clients. This awareness forms the basis of the analyst’s understanding of the client’s inner world and how it came to be. At points in the therapy, the analyst will state some of his/her understanding and check with the client to see if this makes sense. At other times the analyst will ask the client something like this “How do you feel about our interaction today?” Imagine God asking us humans how we feel about our interaction with him/her. Imagine God asking, “How do you experience me?” or “How do you experience my revelations to you?” Imagine a God who actually wants to be in a relationship with us and desires to share our experiences and hear from us.

What is it about us humans that we create a God who is primarily about power and control? A God who is primarily a lawgiver and judge, certain to punish our failings. A God who is distant and removed? Why do we prefer an omniscient and omnipotent God who knows all of our past, present, and futures but so often chooses not to act? Why do we prefer a God who allows evil and then claims it was in the service of good? And we call that a loving God.

Are we aware of our own biases in the kind of God we create?

Donn Peters received a Doctor of Psychology from BIOLA University in 1991. In June of 2020 he received a Doctor of Psychoanalysis from the Institute for Contemporary Psychoanalysis in Los Angeles. He is currently writing a dissertation on “The Relational turn in Psychoanalysis and Theology” for Tom Oord’s Open and Relational Theology doctoral program.

To purchase the book from which this essay comes, see Love Does Not Control: Therapists, Psychologists, and Counselors Explore Uncontrolling Love