The Relational Power of God

Jul 2, 2023 | Field Notes

A Review of Eleanor O’Donnell’s ‘The Relational Power of God: Considering the Rebel Voice’. (Originally posted on Catholic Books Review Online)

This is a comprehensive academic study of the philosophical and theological roots of the notion of God as omnipotent and powerful, a construct which has complicated the perennial questions of theodicy. The author argues for a more grounded and relational understanding of God’s power, one rooted in an understanding of God as one who is fully moved and participatory in the lives of suffering peoples and fully present in the midst of brokenness and sin. O’Donnell’s critique of traditional constructs of God is motivated by her desire to stand in solidarity with those who are victims of abusive power. She contends that the construct of God as all powerful is at the root of the abuse of power by abusive people and corrupt systems. A self-identifying liberationist and feminist, she studies power from a variety of perspectives. While cognizant of the insightful contributions of sociologist Max Weber and philosopher Michel Foucault, O’Donnell aligns herself with the process philosophies of Whitehead and Hartshorne and the social trinitarianism theology of Jurgen Moltmann, each prominent thinkers in their respective disciplines during the 20th century.

Process philosophy’s focus on actuality and potentiality, seeking to argue for God when traditional essentialism and metaphysics had been mostly abandoned in the wake of the hermeneutics of suspicion and dismissed following the horrors of the early twentieth century, helps to provide a way to conceive of God as being-with and creatively immanent within the human condition. But perhaps even more worthwhile than her philosophical coverage, O’Donnell connects process philosophy with the philosophical principle of perichoresis and the Chalcedonian Christology which emerged from the Patristic Era. Indeed, O’Donnell’s weaving of Patristic theology with contemporary process philosophy and social trinitarianism makes this book a valuable resource for students of theology and for those searching for a coherent Christology for the Third Millennium. In fact, her two overarching themes, God as the social trinity and God as peaceful, loving and participatory rather than militant, judgemental and punitive, provide the framework for re-imagining how power can work and how stories of salvation and resurrection can be told today.

Like many feminist thinkers, O’Donnell understands that power is necessary but wants to reclaim it within a communal and personal framework, one that heals rather than harms. A careful clarification of the difference between the quantity of power and the quality of power adds to her argument. Moreover, along the way she argues for the need for new images of God and for the need to reclaim suppressed biblical and historical images of God that may better suit the experience of power as relational and communal. Finally, she argues for a panentheism (not pantheism) that would respond to our complex and diverse world, a world in the midst of obscene economic disparity and an ecological crisis, a dual global crisis on par with the world wars of the twentieth century and the Holocaust which caused so much disenchantment from religious and secular traditions.

The book reads as if it lacked the oversight of a seasoned editor who may have encouraged her to reduce the repetitiveness of her arguments, a common weakness of doctoral dissertations turned into books. Despite this drawback the academic community is the beneficiary of a deposit of solid research passionately argued. While the book lacks the explicit voice of experience, which is unfortunate given the subtitle is ‘Considering the Rebel Voice’, one nonetheless senses her underlying quiet voice of experience. A clue for the quietness of her voice is found in the final pages where O’Donnell recounts what set her upon this path of intellectual inquiry, the trauma of her father’s death in a train accident. A Curate from her family’s local Anglican Church unfortunately used inappropriate theological images and language to try to console her grieving family when a more pastoral response would have been to be silently present and be a mediator of the One Who is Present. This trauma could be the cornerstone for O’Donnell’s rebel voice now that she has clarified the speculative realm and has the framework to raise her voice for those, and with those, who suffer in our time due to the abuse of power.

O’Donnell is someone to watch. While reading this book I was reminded of the powerful breakout book of Dorothy Soelle, Political Theology, which intellectually grounded her vocation as a political theologian. Whether O’Donnell, having mastered the speculative theological field, is drawn into the growing and necessary postmodern stream of contemporary political theologies or is drawn into the field of practical theology where she could bring her finely tuned intellect to bear upon her experience as a chaplain and priest, only time and grace will tell. Either path would benefit immensely from her emerging voice. I look forward to her next books.

1 Comment

  1. Susan Evans

    Reminds me a little of Paul Simon’s Seven Psalms


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