Relational Spirituality – Book Review

In Young Life we value relationships…. a lot. Relationships are a key aspect of our methodology. We go where kids are at and build personal relationships with them. We earn the right to share the good news of Jesus. We personally invite kids to respond to the gospel and walk in friendship with them regardless of their response. We prepare them for a lifelong relationship with Christ and his church. Young Life, at its core, is a relational ministry.

Besides Young Life I’m also engaged in academic theology. One of the most interesting trends in academic theology that I’ve been a part of the last few years is a thing called TheoPsych. As the name implies, it’s the convergence of theology and psychology.

I recently saw that IVP published a book titled, Relational Spirituality: A Psychological-Theological Paradigm for Transformation [Todd Hall with M. Elizabeth Hall]. My interest was piqued since two of my interests (relational ministry and TheoPsych) converged. In this book, the authors argue that

Human beings are fundamentally relational… we develop, heal, and grow to become more loving and Christlike through relationships. (3)

Because of this fact of human nature, any account of spirituality and transformation will need to take into account relationality. In the process of developing an account of relational spiritual transformation the authors begin by making a theological case for the relationality inherent in human nature. They tie human relationality to a relational account of the image of God. This is based on their relational trinitarian theology—I’ll get back to this later…

In addition to the theological case for human relationality, the authors draw heavily upon psychological studies on topics like infant development, attachment theory, and neuroscience to argue that humans are wired to be relational.

Hall and Hall weave their way through relational epistemology and address attachment relationships, arguing that human relational attachment theories are important for understanding how we relate to God. Anyone has pastoral experience knows this to be true. Our relationships with emotionally significant people become filters for how we feel about ourselves, God, and others. (172) Study after study shows that there is a link between people’s experiences of attachment figures and their experiences of God. (126).

The authors argue that the relational goal of spiritual development is loving presence. But what does loving presence look like? Drawing upon Aquinas’s theory of love, they argue that love consists of goodwill and connection. So how should someone enter into the process or relational spiritual transformation? It should be no surprise that the authors argue that community plays a huge role. Additionally, the use of story, suffering, and spiritual practices contribute towards spiritual growth.

This book contains numerous psychological studies which are used to back theological points made by the authors. Whether it’s talking about how humans are wired to be relational or how stillness is crucial for self-reflection/evaluation, you are bound to find an interesting psychological study in this book. If you are in ministry and are hoping to “bring down” some of this content to people you are training or you hope to incorporate some insights into your preaching and teaching you won’t be disappointed. Psychological studies really lend themselves towards being used as teaching illustrations! Plus, they blow people’s minds when you share some obscure scientific study, e. g. the one about infants crawling over “visual cliffs” or the one about Italian monkeys and Mirror Neurons. 

If you are approaching the text from an academic perspective—perhaps someone who is getting their feet wet with TheoPsych—you’ll see one clear example of what new insights concerning human nature may be discovered when theology and psychological science are brought together. Ideally reading this book will lead you to pursue other TheoPsych adjacent topics. For example, one project—the one I’m working on at the moment—concerns human flourishing. I hope address a puzzle like the following one:

If acting as “priests of creation” is—at least in part—humanity’s vocation, should we expect that those who are actively living out this vocation to report high levels of psychological well-being? If so is there a particular account of psychological well-being that would best fit the vocation of “priests of creation?” Would positive results strengthen the argument for this vision of vocation?

I can see parts of this book, especially the arguments regarding how crucial relationality is for human flourishing to make their way into my own project.

TheoPsych seeks to discover what insights about human nature might be discovered when theology and psychological science are brought together. Hall’s book gives us a clear example of what TheoPsych can do.

While I think this book makes an important contribution regarding the relationship between spiritual growth and psychology, and the role that relationality has in spiritual growth more specifically, I think it’s grounded upon a false premise. Now this false premise doesn’t necessarily undercut the big picture argument of the book but I think it’s a genuine weakness—one that a lot of contemporary theological anthropology tends replicate.

The problem is that the book (almost) assumes a relational account of the image of God. In other words, humans image God by being relational creatures, existing in personal relationships. This, the authors argue is grounded in Trinitarian theology. The author(s) draw heavily upon relational (or social) accounts of the Trinity, drawing upon authors like Zizioulas, Grenz, and Gunton. They echo Grenz’s call for a “relational ontology of personhood,” where personhood is not located in the individual but rather in the relationships among persons in community. (64) They express agreement with those who are suspicious of notions of persons as substances. While adopting a relational ontology or a social trinitarianism or a relational view of the image of God certainly gets them the relationality they hope to motivate, none of these things are in fact necessary for their argument. One could simply argue that part of human nature is to be relational, without arguing that relationality itself is what makes humans to be the image of God. You don’t need to mess with the Trinity or ontology to get that. Simply say that biologically human beings are wired to be relational. By saying such a thing, you get almost everything else that the authors want to get. It’s a minor point in my opinion because I could get the same results without those initial theological claims. And because of that I feel that the Halls’s thesis is just as strong, despite my misgivings about how they begin the book.

Note: IVP provided me a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.

Published by cwoznicki

Christ Follower. PhD Student in Systematic Theology at Fuller Seminary. UCLA Philosophy Grad. Former college minister at The Church at Rocky Peak. I'm into theology, philosophy, the Gospels, culture, and mission.

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