I am honored to interview Dr. Marty Folsom, author of the trilogy, Face to Face. You can find out more about Dr. Folsom here at his website. I was struck by two statements on his site: “Welcome to the world of Relational Theology – the life of God for the life of humanity and the world. Joy comes when lived in connection with God, neighbor, and self. I am a visionary and strategist for living life to the full in our personal relationships.” Moreover, Marty “is a visionary leader in education, therapy, theology, relationships, and making connections. He is available to take persons to the next step in relation to God, family, the neighbors, community, and the physical world.” Those who engage Marty’s work will come away with keen insights on the import of living in view of the Triune God.
Paul Louis Metzger (PLM): Marty, please tell us about “relational theology” and how it flows from your understanding of God’s Triune life.
Marty Folsom (MF): Most of the time, theology appears as mere talk about God—giving definitions, descriptions, and arguments for a set of beliefs that form a rational grasp of God which we are asked to believe. This is kind of like writing and reading a library on marriage or sex, but never participating. Relational Theology assumes that God has spoken, is speaking, and wants us to live in dialog as persons who know and love each other—God is in the relationship business. We participate in the relationship by understanding that the Father, Son, and Sprit exist in an indivisible relation as three persons who are distinct in expression and yet singular in a personal life of love. This God is the main cast of the Bible who are seen to act for and with humanity to restore and nurture a dynamic loving relationship with humanity.
Relational Theologians must indwell not only the text of the Bible, but the whole field of personal relations that we are invited to enter. This means learning to hear and respond to God and others. Theologians cannot just talk about God; we must let God talk, as we aid in the hearing and how we respond to the invitation. We must come to know who God is and who we are as beloved and met in this moment, not a theory that abstractly dances off the stage. So, rather than saying “God is love,” which is true, we need to hear ourselves addressed as the Father says, “I have always loved you; I know you, and you belong to Me; I will never let you go.” That takes the eternal, omnipotent, covenant God and splashes us right into the Father’s embrace reaching for us. Then Jesus says, “I love you to death and life again; I will never leave you or stop wrestling with you until you see Our love heal you and open you to fullness of life.” The Trinity is addressing us in active relation. Does the Spirit have a voice? Yes, we need to hear what the Spirit says as we hear the heart of the Father, and the Voice of Jesus resonating: “I have come to dwell in you so that you may always hear Our love and let that passion nudge you into acts of love that echo Ours. I gift you to share with others this human journey to explore the creativity and restorative work of Our love.” Relational Theology is not touchy-feely psychobabble; it takes seriously the personal engagement of God as part of everyday living.
PLM: What got you “hooked” on Trinitarian relational theology, including scholarly and pastoral works?
MF: In my involvement with Young Life over many years, I found that relationships are critical, especially those that expound the joy of being with others. The Triune God is all about that. I heard those ideas 40 years ago and spent 20 years in higher education getting all the depth I could to articulate what I have found to be the empowering possibility of relational theology as we participate in God’s shared life. I studied great theologians like Barth, Torrance and Gunton, as well as philosophers like Buber and Macmurray to learn the academic structures, but also studied family systems, addiction, and attachment therapies to learn how theology speaks to human systems of relation in the field of the personal. My journey has produced the fruit of translating the relational agenda of the revealed God into the ordinary course of our relating in ways that bring insight and wisdom that originates and resonates with the active kind of love we see as the outworking of the Gospel. I got hooked because I saw that this reorientation into the relational life of God brings the satisfying fruit of the Spirit.
PLM: How has Trinitarian relational theology shaped your understanding of the Christian life and cultivation of community?
MF: If God exists in relationship, then the church, as the Body of Christ, must find its life in other-serving love that compels us and nourishes us. Perfect love casts out fear, but perfect fear casts out love. Many are blind to the ways the church is saturated with fear of not getting it right, believing correctly, having a perfect “Christian” marriage or family. Those who are watching replace the grace of God that bids us throw off all the fear that holds us and go on an adventure. Relational Theology gives me eyes to see that Jesus was unafraid, calling for a love that is unstoppable. He was not merely avoiding fearful situations. He was driven by a passionate love that sought the flourishing of loving encounters. Imagine a church body coming together to be filled with the joy of that kind of love and then going out and practicing it with ALL of their neighbors. We would listen better, telling stories with a willingness to hear others as well. We would live a hospitable lifestyle, making room for others, to care for them in practical ways. Rather than having posters on our walls that talk about community we can barely glimpse, it would be on the lips of our neighbors: “Those people love each other and it spills over on us; I am so glad I live here.” The cultivation of community would be like a forest fire of love that does not consume, but composts, becoming fertile ground for new connection and growth in knowing and being known.
PLM: How do you position your engagement of Trinitarian theology in view of recent critiques of relational or social Trinitarianism?
MF: I wrestle with this a lot. Classical Trinitarians (CT) have attacked “evil Social Trinitarians” (ST) with some vigor. If the problem with social trinitarian thinking is that it takes human, social experience like being family or friends and then says, “God is like that,” then yes, there is a problem. We are creating God in the form of our human experience—this is called idolatry, making God in our image. But Classical Trinitarians argue in abstract language ancient questions about the oneness of God and the attributes of God and God’s action. They may offer helpful answers to certain questions, but they seem to miss serving the church in learning to hear and live in personal connection with the living God. We are to abide in Jesus and He in us; we are to learn to discern His voice from that of imposters. If that is what the CT are doing, then they need to learn some sheep talk. Relational Theology (RT) needs to function as receptive nourishment that begins with God and meets us where we are with what is intended to bring health. That is what Jesus’ taking on human flesh provided. We need to see theology that is truly breathed from the life of God, speaks our language, calls us to daily live within God’s hospitality, and learn the skills of seeing theology translated into actions that convey love to neighbors, and to learn to love ourselves. I think CT and ST have great benefit. But CT can get you stuck in your head and ST can get you stuck in happy, human-only relations that jettison God as they thank God for the idea of friendship. RT must be humble in an everyday refreshment that comes from meeting the Triune God with joyful seriousness and empowering others to experience the love that frees us from our many forms of bondage.
PLM: Please provide a brief summary of your trilogy, Face to Face. Moreover, what led you to write these volumes, and how do you envision readers benefiting from the trilogy?
MF: The trilogy started as one book to recount the ‘ah-ha’ moments in my life that helped me to answer the question, “What does it mean to have a personal relationship with God?” The first volume pays attention to what is missing these days in understanding the life of the personal and how fear has taken over and warped so much of our experience of God and one another. The second volume paints a picture of what it looks like to move beyond thinking and talking about relationships to begin the practice of personal relating. It gets us out of our heads and onto the court to really play the game for which we are made. The final volume takes on the grand adventure of discovering what it means to be persons who know other persons, and particularly to find this all begins in the life of the Triune God. But we are also entreated to share this benevolent life with God, not as a religious act on Sunday or a spot of spirituality here and there. More like a family, we are born into something way bigger than ourselves and, with God, we find ourselves with a new empowerment to love in word and deed. This moves toward a complete permeation of life. Something like falling in love transforms us. This does not mean there are not hard days, only that we see with the eyes of love and are not stopped by the fear that love is lost. Readers find the language of the books very accessible, but also deep in bringing images of a different way of living, thinking, feeling, and acting. They find tools and distinctions that open doors to what is going on and what is missing. Theology suddenly becomes about life.
PLM: Joy is a key theme in your life and ministry, though it appears to be in short supply in our society at large. I was struck by a recent Facebook post of yours. There is a wonderful picture of you jumping on an ocean beach (at Cannon Beach, Oregon) with a smile on your face. The caption reads, “Theologian on beach filled with joy and dancing with the angels….” It reminded me of Karl Barth’s statement, “The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this field.” Marty, you are by no means a morose theological mind. What is it that inspires such joy in you, and how might others become more joyful—truly joyful—and less morose?
MF: I have always had a compass pointer that sought after joy—joy about discovery and especially when you find you are loved. I think there is nothing more concrete in our human experience than the love for which we are made. When people are disconnected, afraid, lost in any way, their darkness is like missing joy. But when the reality of a caring person permeates their dampened inwardness, even the dampness becomes vitalized for life. Stories of loss contain possibilities of connection. I went through a devastating divorce and wrestled for years with how to be a good dad against all the challenges. But along the way, I learned to be present, to listen, to help others who were facing challenges. My brokenness made space for learning to embrace others and especially the depth of the love of God. We do not have space here to tell all the stories that would illustrate this. But that day on the beach was just one of many where the turn of the kaleidoscope of my life meant giving thanks for the beach, my daughter, the crashing waves, the fact that I can still jump and click my heels—I was focused like I am on most days to the fact that I am a theologian who is committed to being loving and nurturing in all my relationships, whether on a beach or washing the dishes. In that greenhouse of attention joy seems to blossom. Barth is my North Star, a guide to the wonder of theological exploration.
PLM: What closing thoughts would you like to share with our readers about life in view of the Triune God?
MF: I feel that I have discovered the cure for the cancer of personal relating, as Simon & Garfunkel sang: “Fools, said I, you do not know, silence like a cancer grows.” Most people are so distracted with their busy lives that they cannot see the silence of missing relationships, especially with the Triune God. That is my adventure—to be a voice that invites, that loves hospitably to bring the experience of God’s love to practical attunement in everyday life. I do not like to talk at people as much as with them. I hope this brief conversation opens many more to explore what the invigorating presence of the Triune God would look like to play out in homes and neighborhoods with traces of laughter dancing down the street. Thanks for making room for me to stomp out some new wine . . .