The Relational Power of God: Considering the Rebel Voice
Pickwick Publications, Eugene, Oregon, 2023.
Rev Dr Eleanor O’Donnell is well known to many of us in chaplaincy circles having worked in Anglican schools in a number of states including Collegiate College, Melbourne Grammar, Ballarat Grammar and Hale School.
Former chaplain at Melbourne Grammar, Rev Dr Ronald Noone, provides a review of Eleanor’s book.
Eleanor O’Donnell’s motivation for writing this book emerged from the devastating loss of her father in the terrible Granville train disaster in Sydney in 1977. As a devout young girl, she had to struggle with ideas of God’s goodness with the awful experience of her own suffering and that of her mother and sister. As a result of her continued but respectful questioning she asks, what model of God best explains God’s exercise of power in the world? She concludes that a synthesis of process theology and trinitarian theology, drawing on Charles Hartshorne ‘s work on Process Theology and Jürgen Moltmann’s Social Trinitarianism.
The appeal to experience as a test of doctrine suggests the term has a ‘ring of truth’, a ‘being in tune with’ experience. The basis of authority is shifted from external norms to norms that are in some sense intrinsic to human selfhood. The orthodox attributes of God’s being, omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, immutability etc, are interpreted in the light of human experience. Two beliefs remain in common. The first is that God’s being, as shown in what happens with Jesus of Nazareth, is no other than one of love. God is not almighty except as love. God enacts and defines love in what happens with Jesus. God is not confessed as being like love in certain respects and unlike love in others. As St. John says, God is love. The second claim is to think of God’s being as dominion. God is not compassionate except as Lord. God has dominion over all things and over all that opposes love. The disciples are instructed by Jesus not to ‘lord it’ over others as the Gentiles do. The doctrinal task is to show that God’s love is to be understood as God’s dominion and God’s dominion is to be understood as God’s love.
The ideas expressed by Max Weber and Michel Foucault, that power in human relations as understood as domination and control, is culturally embedded and this springs from ideas about God’s exercise of power. However, God’s dominion exercised as love is the opposite of the domination and control referred to by Weber and Foucault.
Theologians offer up a different view from the traditional sense of the omnipotence of God and the emerging theologies of power that take contemporary science seriously. What O’Donnell suggests is to understand God’s exercise of power ‘panentheistically’, as this allows God to maintain an appropriate sense of otherness, while at the same time imbuing the entire created order with the presence of the divine.
Process Theology emphasises God’s dynamic nature as both acting upon and being affected by the world and for O’Donnell this allows her to confront the issues of power and suffering from God being active in the world and not apart from it. The author uses A.N. Whitehead’s metaphysics emphasising process thought in experience in ourselves and creation. This is incorporated into a theology by Charles Hartshorne who argues that God is the supreme power in existence, the causal influence superior to all others. God responds to us and the world with a different power of love.
The Holy Trinity is a central doctrine of the church and yet the doctrine has served to not only befuddle the faithful but also used to burn dissenters at the stake. Given the undoubted history of confusion and persecution attendant upon the doctrine, one wonders why it persists as the major Christian attempt to describe the being of God. An Australian archbishop once described the doctrine of the Trinity as a blancmange, a dessert or sweet pudding, and I think he meant the deeper one delves into it the messier it becomes. O’Donnell uses modern or contemporary interpretations of the doctrine to address the issue of power, specifically the Social Trinitarianism of Jürgen Moltmann. She concentrates on the “personhood” of the Trinity which requires social interaction between the persons of the Trinity.
She cites Moltmann, “ To think of God in history always leads to theism and atheism. To think of ‘history in God’ leads beyond that, into a new creation and hemopoiesis”- a medical term for the formation of blood cells in the living body. Moltmann is inferring that all things are related to God at a cellular level. The capacity of God to relate to and embrace all that is. (P. 118)
O’Donnell explains the development of the doctrine in the early church and the dogmatic arguments have a certain appeal for a certain kind of mind. Somehow though they can turn in on themselves and become quite separate from lived experience. The rebel voice questions orthodox understandings and allows for less dogmatic approaches which chaplains should find appealing. The religious educator, Gabriel Moran puts it beautifully when he says, “ Every act formed by charity is a revelation of God. Every word of truth and love, every hand extended in kindness, echoes the inner life of the Trinity.” (Theology of Revelation).
O’Donnell looks at the ways power is exercised in the church and offers models of shared power imitating the non-coercive power and relationality of God. Her criticisms of the way leadership is exercised in the church are completely valid and one hopes may encourage those in leadership roles to rethink how they exercise their authority.
The questions O’Donnell explores in a fearless yet respectful way are important for those in positions of authority in the church, especially chaplains in schools, who face questions about how God operates in the world and how they may understand the importance of love in all relationships.
The Revd. Dr. Ronald Noone is the author of Opening Hearts and Minds, Reflections on School Chaplaincy, University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, Queensland, 2015.
Binding Things Together, Teaching as a Religious Activity, Monash University Publishing, Clayton, Victoria, 2020.
Eleanor’s book is available at the following site