Hello and welcome to Karl Barth for Dummies. My name is Richard Keith and my special guest today is Dr Marty Folsom. Marty is Adjunct Professor at Shiloh University, Executive Director (USA) at Pacific Association for Theological Studies, and a published author with Wipf and Stock Publishers.
Richard Keith: It gives me great pleasure to welcome Dr Marty Folsom. Marty, welcome to Karl Barth for Dummies.
Dr Marty Folsom: Thanks you so much for inviting me to the conversation. I am delighted to talk about a theologian of joy and my life in response!
Richard: Tell us a bit about yourself, your family, your current home and work.
Marty: I grew up in a family with a father who began as a believer, but said he “converted out of Christianity” in midlife. This formed a deep urge in me to try to make Christianity intelligent enough to be considered again. My mother, on the other hand, is a woman of simple, positive faith who loves life and people as an expression of God’s love. I was formed in this crucible between the mind and the heart and being relationally wise has been a guiding desire in my work.
I am the fourth of 6 kids and only one other is a Christian, so the interplay of relating to each of them has shaped me as well in trying to be an authentic witness who does not speak Christianeze.
I was married in 1985 and had 3 kids who are 19, 21, and 24. They are my teachers in how to love difference. That wife divorced me in 1998 and I had to learn the depth of relationships from a place of brokenness and to find healing for myself and those around me. My theology is deeply influenced by the need to answer the questions of what we mean by functional and dysfunctional relationships that came into focus during this time.
In 2001 I married Cindy who had three teenage boys. Although this was challenging, it was at a perfect time to learn to love unconditionally in practical, daily interaction. Marrying Cindy was an act of divine grace. She just retired from being a dentist and had allowed me to do my work without worries about money. She believes in what I do and that I change the world as a theologian and therapist. She is my patron saint.
I live in Snohomish, Washington in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. My basement is my library and office; I am surrounded by 15,000 books which are my memory, resource, inspiration, and circle of friends. I call this my Shire and occasionally see Hobbits on their way to the Misty Mountains. We have a vacation place in Anacortes Washington as well, looking across the San Juan Islands. I write and retreat there. We will retire there some day. I am surrounded by beauty that births creativity.
I occasionally teach as an adjunct (theology and biblical studies), supervise doctoral students, write and speak, and organize a collaboration of theological schools in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia (there are about 52). Imagine having a BBQ in 5 hub cities and gathering the deans for a meal and asking how we can collaborate. That is a brief glance at that. I also maintain a marriage and family counseling practice. I am also the chancellor of a church-based seminary (not offering degrees at the moment, although we have 4 developed). As part of that I have an art gallery to connect artists, art, and community in conversation. I also run Sinners & Tax Collectors to do seminary like Jesus did, in a public place with open conversations, and an invitation to explore. I have been a professor as an adjunct or affiliate for 20 years, but it is tough to find full-time employment. I am sustained by passion for my work and my wife. But where I teach, I usually make deep connection with my students and am noted as creative, constructive, and personable. I have a patchwork career and it seems this has been God’s plan for my life. I belong to no school or denomination, but can interact with them all. I can be a Kingdom of God theologian and still be an unsophisticated friend who enjoys the companionship of most people.
For fun, I cook most of the meals; maintain 5 themed gardens, bike, kayak, hike, rollerblade, and I love hospitality in our home. Did I mention I love books and reading them?
Richard: What is your favorite book, your favorite movie, your favorite song, and your favorite holiday destination?
Marty: Favorite book is hard in that I have at least a dozen favorite authors and many of their books. I was raised on the Chronicles of Narnia and have read them 20+ times each. I love the wildness of Aslan, the adventure of discovering the deeper magic in all the books, and the mystery that accompanies the challenges and friendships.
My favorite movie is probably Babette’s Feast. I love the beauty of the presentation, the eyes of delight that the General brings to the table, and the transformation of the community, with the help of good wine as well.
My favorite song is U2 I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For. It calls me to keep going as an agent of change and innovation. It allows for dissatisfaction with the way things are and a permission to stay on the move with eyes wide open. I taught a class on U2, so I have a preference for their thoughtful music. It is for me what Mozart is to Barth.
Favorite holiday destination is a place with warm water where I can snorkel, and a beach with a nice place to sit for hours and read, did I mention I like to read books? I have been to St Lucia and St Martin and have fond memories of the fish and time to refresh my soul in reading.
Richard: Did you grow in a faith you always had or did you have a conversion experience?
Marty: I grew up in a family that went to University Presbyterian Church in Seattle. It was an hour drive each way. That meant that faith was in one world and I lived in another. As a teenager, I had girlfriends who went to church locally and I went. This unified the world of faith and everyday life. But I was most influenced by Young Life which made Christianity fun and relational. I discovered that faith could be part of life, rather than a set of beliefs that are disconnected from daily living. I became a leader and this started me down a road of meaningful engagement. I do not think of having a conversion moment, though I felt a call to ministry at a Young Life camp where I was on work crew as the garbage man. I felt the call to service in community that has shaped me in ministry. Being a leader has helped me learn to give to others what I have found as a functional Christianity.
Richard: Did you have a job or career before starting theological studies?
Marty: I have always had several jobs going. I have worked with concrete, in a bookstore, as a wrestling coach, driving heavy equipment, as a janitor, as a barista, but none of these were a career. I was earning money and trying out different jobs. I thought I might like to teach kids in school. I thought I might like to have a mindless job that paid the bills so I could do what I want. I was interested in ministry. The day I graduated from high school I thought I was done with education. I was wrong.
Richard: Wrestling, eh? Greco-Roman or WWF?
Marty: Collegiate, I cannot stand WWF, closer to Greco-Roman, I also wrestle with God and so have had both my hips replaced!
Richard: What made you start your theological training and where did you study?
Marty: When I started working with kids and saw the value of relationships, the Bible applied to life, and the need for renewal in the life of the church, it struck a spark that is still burning. I started at a secular Community College that was so valuable for orienting me to the secular world of the people I hoped to help. It was like cleansing the palate between courses so I could not be a Bible thumper, but actually learn how people outside the church think. That was the start of my theological education—to learn the patterns of thought in the culture I hoped to reach.
Then I went to Northwest University for a BA in Youth Ministry. I learned the Bible and how to apply it in the life of the church. This taught me to connect the church and ministry.
Then I did another 2 years at Northwest for a ThB in Theology. This was basically taking all the theology and Bible classes they offered. I was the last one to graduate with this degree as they dropped it and replaced it with a Master’s Degree. This was my introduction to academic excellence, connecting the Bible and theology to advanced research.
Then I did two Master’s Degrees at the same time. I did a MA in Biblical Literature that took six and a half years and was a professional degree to apply higher learning to the practice of ministry; it was more like a MDiv in that it was learning the disciplines of Bible Interpretation, Theology, and Ministry practice for the life of the Church. That was with the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary, but I am not AG so I was always a bit of an outsider. One class in particular, Theological Research Methods was exceptional in doing research and has served me ever since.
The second MA was in Theology at Fuller Seminary Northwest. These were golden years in the program. I had people like Bruce Metzger and Richard Longenecker for NT. J.B. Torrance, Clark Pinnock, Neal Plantiga, and Ray S. Anderson for Theology. Local professors filled out other classes, but they were all great. This was an addition to the academic side of the process and prepared me for my PhD work. It was J.B who I wanted to do PhD work with, but he was retiring and encouraged me to study with his son Alan in NZ.
I did my PhD at Knox Theological Hall, University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ. I did most of my work with Alan Torrance. It was a research degree, but I also sat in on every undergraduate and graduate course he taught to become saturated with his thinking. I led tutorials as I became competent and that helped my ability to articulate ideas I was formulating. We also had a Barth reading group where Alan’s graduate students would each take a turn presenting a section of CD 4.1. That was a great intro to deeper readings of Barth with the interpretive help of so many. Alan went to finish his PhD, so Douglas Campbell took over and helped me finish the work. I came to see that he was applying Barthian theology in NT studies and he has helped keep the Bible and Theology in a stereo relationship in my thinking to give depth. I was his first PhD student ever.
Then I did a post-doctorate at Regent College in Vancouver, BC Canada. I was able to interact with Stan Grenz and he mentored me in many practical ways. I researched how Trinitarian theology might become a context for Family Systems thinking as a practical outworking of the relational implications born in the community of the Triune God and worked out in churches and families. I also started counseling after this in 1999. I also rewrote all 150 psalms in rhymed poetry, which sparked my love of words as my artistic medium. I wrote several articles that began to express my theology for the life of the church and beyond. I also got to sit in on summer school classes for two years with Colin Gunton, James Houston, Treavor Hart, Richard Bauckham, Jeremy Begbie, Gordon Fee, Eugene Peterson, J.B Torrance and Alan Torrance again, for whom I was an assistant. What a rich time! I must add that I still order and listen to lectures from Regent as part of my ongoing learning.
I must add that teaching has been a continuation of my education. I taught first at the University of Otago (Greek) and Bible College of NZ. Then I taught at Seattle Pacific University, Seattle University, The Seattle School for Theology and Psychology, Northwest University, The Kings University, and Trinity Lutheran. The classes have been in theology, biblical studies, ethics, and church history. Every class is like review plus a doubling of exposure to the topics. I love preparing and teaching, only the grading can be burdensome. In it all, I have become a Francis of Assisi kind of person, wanting the simplicity and beauty of the life of God to be made available to all people, so I draw from this life of education but to make it available to a hungry world that needs gospel nourishment in a way they are not getting.
Richard: Marty, I notice you did your PhD in New Zealand. And not sunny Auckland, but Dunedin. I love New Zealand, it’s my favorite holiday destination, but there’s got to be a story there. Did you go there to study at a certain place or with a certain person?
Marty: I am from Seattle so I love rain and green hills. James Torrance directed me there because I said I wanted to explore the relational nature of theology. I wanted to understand how the relational trinity informed theology and our understanding of personhood. He said Alan would be perfect and he was right. J.B. was a theologian with a pastor’s heart. Alan was an academic with an athletic energy to serve the academy and the church, mixed with humor and decisive reasoning. Auckland had no PhD in 1990. Dunedin was were the sun was shining for me, and it is not that different from the verdant greenness of Seattle. In fact, there is nowhere I have found more like my home than that part of NZ. Plus, at that time the cost of education was low there, one dollar would buy me two NZ dollars, so my value doubled, the medical system was free and my son was born there, and it was a beautiful place to study. They spoke English, but did not think American. That was mind expanding. The fellow PhD students were gracious and helpful—personal tutors who helped me learn what I was missing. Those were hard years for Knox with liberal/conservative battles, but golden years for me.
Richard: Your dissertation was on a Comparative Assessment of the Concept of Freedom in the Anthropologies of John Macmurray, John Zizioulas, and Karl Barth. Why freedom, and why Barth?
Marty: Great question! Alan helped me with this. If I was to understand relational theology, I needed to understand the nature of persons who do the relating. So I had to do theological anthropology—what is a theological understanding of what it means to be a person. Alan suggested that Macmurray was a significant philosopher on the subject. Zizioulas was an Orthodox theologian who was fleshing out the idea for the Trinity. Barth was the master theologian who could center the theological methodology to get at the question. They were all proposed as presenting a relational view of personhood, especially in The Forgotten Trinity, published in the UK. So I was going to compare and contrast their unpacking of personhood.
Freedom was the term all three used as the fulfillment of what it means to be fully a person. How convenient! In the end, their differences were really made evident by virtue of this key aspect. It is important to note that Barth said that the US needed a new Theology of Freedom, so this made it important for my mission to make theology serve my native land.
Barth is the one who broke free of the Enlightenment and began with an encounter with a personal God. This informs all the logic that follows in the CD and why I claim he is a relational theologian. His relationality informs the rational outworking of his thinking. So often, the rational approach of a theologian tries to put God and everything else in boxes—God sliced and diced. Barth lets God roar like a lion and look us in the eye to engage a dialog. At least that is what I see in the depths. This brings the fulfillment of personal relating and the joy that is its fruit. Barth believes in a living and active God whose grace is present and engaging to transform us with loving interplay. I also love his critique of Natural theology, which keeps us from warping God into our own image and gives God a Voice that speaks with clarity.
Richard: Marty, I’d recommend your introduction to Barth in your PhD to any student. You identify five periods in Barth’s work. Many people talk about early Barth and late Barth, or mature Barth. What five periods did you discern?
Marty: You are referring to my PhD, which is available for access for free at Academia.edu. I want it to be accessible as an invitation to see Barth as a developing character. I read Busch first to understand the story of the man Barth in his progression. That is where I discerned the phases, which I see as layers that add and clarify, rather than being merely sequential. Each subsequent phase is in dialog with what came before.
Phase one would be his liberal education at the leading scholars of the day who hoped in human understanding and potential to fulfill the ideals of God in this world. He had to hope in this before he could see the deep inadequacy of its promise. It promised what could not be achieved because the human was central in determining what theology was to provide, and that was a better human world achieved by humans. This is Barth in his time, permeated, but prepared to be a revolutionary to what he saw so well as the blow up balloon God of his day.
Phase two was his pastoral time at Safenwil. This was where the rubber hit the road, but the theology he had been taught could not serve the needs of the people who he cared for. He began to be transformed as he came to believe that preaching was to allow God to speak, not improve human lives through human efforts. Fellow pastors also helped him see a more God-centered way. This was Barth discovering the heart of God by what was missing when he came to feed his people with straw when they needed the meat of the living God.
Phase three was the discovery of the strange new world of the Bible. The highlight of this was the Romans Commentary in 1919. Here the Bible is like stepping through the Wardrobe and discovering a whole world and living God that was for humanity and was alive to bring a life not attainable other than by this living Word of God. The Bible went from a text to a window or door to discovery of an active life to be shared, not a belief system to be etched in stone. Rather than let theology collapse into the cultures that interpreted the Bible, he called for theology to stand on its own ground in the revealed Word who still speaks. This was Barth as one who discovers the treasure that surpasses comprehension and becomes the tour guide who brings us to the Treasure who is a personal God.
Phase four was an existentialist phase. He began work on the Christian Dogmatics. He had discovered Christ, but still focused on the Christian individual apart from Christ. When those he disagreed with liked his work, he had to ask why, and discovered the strains of the individualist, existentialist human before Christ and needing the next step, to be found in Christ. He needed to move from beginning with human questions that are put to Christ to letting Jesus set the questions and the complete revealing of God. This is God discovering he has been bringing people to Christ to get their needs met and questions answered, but now need to get them to learn to listen and explode with the discover of all the God has to affirm as a whole life of being for humanity on His creative and restoring terms.
The fifth phase was marked by discovering Anselm and was a dogmatic phase. This means to unpack and understand all in the light of Christ’s revealing of God and all his ways of being. This is the period of the Great Church Dogmatics. He still develops as a theologian in how this unpacking the life and discovery made possible in Christ, but it is all within this method of listening with humility. From this place he could confront philosophy, psychology, denominations, political issues, and ethics. Christ was the source of all engagement and anything or anyone who tried to bring a wisdom apart from listening to Christ was called out for their error in making claims about God other than from God. This dogmatic phase was a clarifying of what Christ was saying and a critique of all other voices that made truth claims that needed to be dismantled, including Kant, Descartes, liberalism, fundamentalism, Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and a host of theologians who he felt started in the wrong place. Barth became the Master of ceremonies who kept calling the audience back to the focus where we could know and enter God’s life. He was the security guard as well, who kept all the distracting voices in the balcony from overrunning the main event—knowing God in all God’s grace and glory. Thus, the mission of God was the restoration of the God-human drama to a shared life freed form the synthetic to encounter the authentic, Triune God who has come to embrace us. This is Barth the master surgeon, removing the disease, cancer, and destructive influences and resetting broken bones and all that leads us to health in the hands of the Healer who is Lord and Servant, always mysteriously beyond us, but most intimate of all that could be close to us.
Throughout Barth’s life he added each phase to his developing point of view. He never got over checking the expiration date on liberal theologies that took the church back to 19th century thinking that elevated the human and lost God. He never lost his pastor’s heart that desired to let the Bible become the Voice of God to the Church. He never lost the intuition that the Bible is capable of pointing past itself to enable an encounter with a living God. He never lost the awareness of the potential to make theology about the human seeking God instead of discovering the God who has already chosen to be with us and for us and gives us more than we need. He finished his life articulating what it means to live in relation to this living God who speaks to us, elects to be for us in Christ, brings us home to share God’s life as the content and goal of reconciliation, and redeems to make all things new in the God-human relation, our nations, our communities, our families, and our personal/relational lives. He said no to all that frustrated our reception of God’s gift and said yes in this seasoned, multilayered way that made available the very life of God in this time between the times.
His whole life is a context for understanding him, I always read the parts in light of the whole wrestling that Barth was doing..
Richard: On page 186 of your PhD you say “Barth understands freedom to be the person of Christ.” That sounds a lot like Barth, but what does it mean?
Marty: Excellent question. For Barth, freedom is not a concept among other concepts, it is made real and actual in Christ. Jesus does not just teach us the truth about God, He is the Truth who is faithfully God to us and truly brings us home to His Father. He is the Truth. Jesus gives content to the meaning of every word. As T.F. Torrance says, Jesus is the ground of our grammar in talk about God and the God-human relation. So if we take a word like freedom and describe it from our experience as freedom from our work, debt, etc, it is a move of removal of obligation and responsibility. This is the Western vision of independence. It is human and individual serving. Further, free-will is seen as the empowerment of each person to do their own thing. Unfortunately, that is also the definition of sin. As Judges concludes, Everyone did what was right in their own eyes.
For Barth, Jesus is the One who in love is freely for us. Freedom is the restoration of relation, not the removal of obligation. We are most free when we live within the love of this One who has given all, is ever-present, and loves in a way that restores and renews us into His image. When we are in Christ we are new creatures who are free by sharing His life. He does not free is to walk away. He is the very act of Loving Freedom that is actual and complete for us already. We repent by being awakened to what is already accomplished as Gods act and being in freedom that unconditionally and personally present in Christ Himself. Jesus is that freedom that God offers. He is the fulfillment of the life of love that is God’s Freedom. Where the Spirit of the Lord is and we know this person of Jesus, there is freedom because the Spirit brings us to Christ. You shall know the Truth (Jesus) and this person-Truth will set you free—to be with him in the most outrageous love relationship you can imagine. It is freedom in Him and with Him. We only experience authentic freedom as we come to the person of Christ. Freedom is not a derivative, it is actual and real in Him. Freedom is fulfilled in Him to know His Father and live as beloved Children. Freedom is fulfilled in Him as the Spirit incorporates us into the Body of Christ and empowers us to share His life of love. Jesus is the Freedom of God for us and with us, any other direction we walk is a walk away from freedom embodied in this person who is the Freedom of God for us and the Freedom of Humanity to share God’s life in Freedom.
This has huge implications for what a healthy family, church, or community might look like. Freedom becomes an experience of Christ who makes possible a love that overcomes our differences and allows us to share life in knowing and being known as an echo of Freedom made possible in Christ.
Richard: Did your PhD lead you to an academic career or a pastoral role?
Marty: The word career is almost modern; I have found myself located in a fractured post-modern world. I have been teaching as an adjunct since returning from my PhD for about 20 years at multiple schools. I am white, male, young, and without all the academic publishing that might get a standard position. I am an academic for the church, so I work in the academy and on behalf of the church. With my divorce in 1998 and kids in the Seattle area and then marrying a dentist who could not leave her practice, I could not follow the jobs out of the region. Although there are theological schools in the area, they have small faculty, long time faculty who do not retire very often, and preference is given to women and minorities to balance a history of white-male preference. Bummer for me.
So I have worked in 5 churches, mostly in Christian Education. I am a licensed minister, so I do weddings and funerals, pastoral counseling and the like. This is not quite a career and yet it is all part of my patchwork of investments of my education.
I am also the Executive Director of the Pacific Association for Theological Studies. This is not a paying position, but will be eventually, by the grace of God. I am building a neighborhood of 52 schools to collaborate and ask what could happen if we got collaborative and creative again to restore the place of theological education in a way that gave rise to the great universities of the world. I have a boat load of ideas that are in process. The role has enabled me to connect with many schools and I have become a networker. I hope to make a way for others who follow to have jobs in the arts, business, consulting, writing, and community development. The Kingdom of God honors God by stewarding and caring for each other and the world. Learning to move from an individual focus to personal relationships could change the world. I am the Executive Director of two nonprofit organizations that do not pay me, but where I make a difference. I may get pay in the future.
I am at a crossroads in life as I turn more time to writing and speaking. I am using my education to write out of what I have learned in the academy, but which I hope to invest in the life of the Church and world. I am almost done with the third Face to Face book in the trilogy. I will travel and speak about the three books, relational theology, and the contribution of theology in the relating life of everyday existence. I love to write and speak and I am told I am quite good. My future will be a continuing mixture of writing, speaking, teaching, and organizing for another 30+ years.
Richard: The Trinity and relational theology are key themes in all your work. What are the connections between them and what do they mean to you?
Marty: I discovered that theology is really about God, even though people put it as an addition to their work, such as theology of marriage, theology of economics, and so on. When theology is about God, you must ask what God you are referring to. I am referring to the God revealed in Jesus. He reveals the Father and the Spirit. So I must begin with them. But here I take a shift. Rather than theology just being our talk about God, I think we need to let God do the talking, that is to address us as Father, Son, and Spirit and firstly tell us who they are (like I am doing now with you) and then tell us about who they are in relation to us. Barth called that theo-anthropology—the God in relation to humanity. Relational theology then is the unpacking of that relationship to clarify God’s own internal relating—God exists in relationship—and God’s ongoing involvement—all God does is for the purpose of relationship. That is Relational Theology in a nutshell. It also leads us to ask how we love one another as the Triune persons love one another and how we love the world as they love the world and invite us to join in. That is a theology of the church and missions.
Richard: Marty, you’re a published author, having published two volumes of your Face to Face books with another one on the way, how did you get the opportunity to write them and make them publicly available?
Marty: After meeting with a life coach, he encouraged me to give up on finding a full-time teaching position and to pursue writing and speaking as a new focus. He had heard me speak and said he thought I had one book in me at least. I started to write that book, looking for the ah-ha moments that have marked my journey. I then went to IVP, Eerdmans, and Paraclete Press. The all said that they did not know what genre I was writing in with a mixture of theology, life story, and relational insight. It was suggested I talk to Wipf & Stock, who are friendly to Barth, Torrance, and Trinitarian theology.
I divided the one book into three as a trilogy and presented it to Robin Parry at the American Academy of Religion Annual meeting in 2012. He liked what I was doing and advocated with W & S. They accepted my proposal. I wrote the first as a 112 page book that came out in 2013, to introduce why we need relational thinking and how we are missing key parts in our theology like understanding the Father of Jesus as the source of love seen in Jesus. I have a relational understanding of sin and the difference it makes in life and thought. I am working on a companion workbook to help engage the reader with its contents.
The second book came out in 2014 as an introduction to what it means to think relationally. This includes language, practices, and the implications for everyday life. This is not just practical theology, it is theology taken to its practical implications. It is 170 pages and will have a companion guide as well.
Book three is by far the longest and most overtly theological. It addresses what we mean by a personal relationship with the Triune God. It is currently around 600 pages in Word, which is less when typeset for the book. It has half again as many words as my doctoral dissertation. It is a significant work that adds a lot to the conversation, as Douglas Campbell said, “It is so constructive.” It sets a new direction for theology that is deeply grounded in academic theology, but uses metaphors of relation to open new insight that is like letting Wine out of the bottle to breath before drinking to bring the flavors out. It should be out this summer.
Richard: In your books you pursue a relational approach to life and theology. Who was your biggest influence in this approach and why do you think it is so important?
Marty: It began with Bruce Larson who was a Presbyterian Minister. He wrote books like No Longer Strangers: An Introduction to Relational Theology. This book was used by Young Life in the 1980’s. Bruce was accused of taking psychology and then going to the Bible to look for proof texts for a relational understanding. This may be true, but it was compelling to see that he was right in his conclusions, even if his approach was lacking. I spent 20 years looking for the answer as to how one does proper theology that leads us to see that it is all about relationships, especially with God, the church, the unchurched, and ourselves. I have modified this, but it is still all about relationships.
Then I met J.B. Torrance. He introduced the Triune God as a being in relationship and also used John Zizioulas and Karl Barth to explain the nature and work of God as a being and action that are best described as relational. These two, in addition to T. F. Torrance became companions to focus the discovery of trinitarian thinking. Then I was passed on to Alan Torrance.
Alan was very focused on the nature of persons. This was the final piece as he used John Macmurray as another dialog partner to understanding the nature of being persons in relation. With a few other friends like Colin Gunton, Jeremy Begbie, Trevor Hart, and Douglas Campbell. Each added language and perspective to fill out the life of God as relational and that it impacts out entire existence.
I believe that it is important that God exists in loving relation and that all God does is for the purpose of relationships. The knowing and being known is radically different from the rational theology that tries to define, describe, and dogmatically delineate God in terms that are indebted to philosophy that keeps God abstract, distant, and absent from informing the life of relationships. I had one student say that I was the first theologian he had had that did not see theology as the content of sermons and adult education, but as the driving factor to understand God and the mission and life of the church that flow out of God’s life. Every class I teach begins with the Trinity in relation. Every class ends with how that affects all we do in understanding and sharing God’s life as the context of our work. Rationalism separates us into our heads and makes us individualistic, theoretical, and detached. Relational thinking engages us in interacting with one another and God, entering the gift of knowing and being known, and involves the whole person. Thus, the whole of the Bible opens up to invite us to live the relations that God had initiated and to grow as persons, not in our head, but in our interrelatedness.
Richard: What insights from Karl Barth inform your relational approach?
Marty: Barth critiqued the rational approach of the Enlightenment and went back to the Bible to find a God who knows the world as an act of love extended from the embrace of the tri-personal God. Barth recovered a relational epistemology, a relational ontology in the Triune God, the place of the church within God’s mission to be shared, and the place of the human to live in joyful covenant response that informs the ethics of relations. From the Trinity through the incarnation, and followed out to the life of redeemed communities and families, Barth’s relational thinking permeated all as it begins with a person, Jesus Christ, and unpacks all the relations opened by Him. He critiqued those who reduced God to a human myth and elevated God’s open revelation of Godself for relation in encounter. Barth is the Backbone of my theology of relations. Zizioulas adds the Being as Communion of God, and Macmurray beautifully displays how it works in human relating.
Richard: I posted some of your Face to Face quotes on the Karl Barth for Dummies page and got a LONG reply from an angry evangelical. He all but accused you of being a postmodern liberal and if you were right, there is no truth and all paths lead to God. I answered him by saying that there is truth, but the truth is love. Can you think of a better answer?
Marty: Lots to say here. To be a modernist is to trust in human reason and to categorize and classify God and the world to make them manageable. There are many forms of postmodernism, one is to restore the communing life of relations as the mission of God over against the individualized rights of modernism. I reject the Enlightenment agenda with Gunton, Newbigin, Barth and others. But only to restore the Trinity as the proper place to begin theology. And I believe that theology, like the Bible, needs to be seen as having its completion in the shaping of human relations as we see in every book of the Bible. I am not sure what the person wants to conserve, or what he thinks I want to change. Jesus wanted to change the interpretation of most of what the religious leaders wanted to conserve. He was a liberal because he wanted to return humanity to His Father, I am that kind of liberal. The Reformation wanted to restore a calcified and corrupt church and to revitalize the life of the church, the Bible, and the meaning of living out of the grace of God. They were liberating theology from those who wanted to conserve the traditions of Roman Catholic Christianity. I am that kind of liberal. Karl Barth wanted to take theology from being a human work for the good of humanity to a genuine knowing of the God revealed in Jesus. He saved Theology from being a liberal religious philosophy for inspiring the feelings of humans. He fought the conservation of human power and returned theology to the study of God. I am that kind of liberal.
Truth in my work is always tied to the person of Jesus. He is the only capital T Truth. We are all dependent on him for truth, which is not abstract beliefs, but living in faithful, true relation with Jesus. His love, grace, wisdom, etc are the ground of all our truth. Anything or anyone who contests this is missing what it means to abide in the Truth of Jesus. I do believe that when we make promises and keep them we are being true to each other in a way that echoes Jesus Truth. But I do not begin with humans finding God through our experience. I only think that one Way leads to the Father, and that is Jesus. He is amazingly inclusive in that he died for all. But no religion will get one to the Father of Jesus. Not even Christianity, only Christ. It appears that that person wants to protect something, but I am not sure what or why I am a threat to orthodox Christianity. Except that I am calling into question the influence of Greek dualisms that divide spiritual and the material world—God loves them all. I am rejecting the individualism and performance mentality that misses the love of God that is the Great Command in the Bible. I reject all non-trinitarian theology that only takes a selected part of God’s revelation to fit a prior agenda. I want the truth of the Bible and am willing to question the Greek, Roman, Enlightenment, Liberal, Fundamentalist, and Political agendas that have confused our reading of the Bible and our relation with God. To judge me before reading my whole work and see where I come from can only bring confusion to the insights I offer. I hope this will be an occasion to clarify the concerns and press forward in the humble work of theology for the Glory of God and the good of humanity God seeks.
Richard: There are some powerful insights in your first book, which I am reading at the moment. Have you got any feedback from readers, like life-changing stories?
Marty: I find that those who read it are impacted by it a lot. I have heard at least a dozen say it has changed their view of God, sin, and who they are. There have been several study groups who have used it and report a great difference. Others say they read it in the bathroom like a devotional to meditate on. All good, no reports of a waste of time!
Richard: If I have a secret I never tell anyone it is that I sometimes feel a fraud in the pulpit. Like I don’t have a shadow of the faith I’m preaching about. Do authors who write about love feel like that? If so, how do you deal with it?
Marty: That is an interesting question. If I had not lost almost everything in my divorce and had to come to this question in brokenness, I would not know where to begin. But I lost the one I had promised to love, and it appeared, the love of God to protect and sustain me. However, afterwards I found myself held and sustained entirely by grace; a wife I feel unworthy of came and I was given more love and provision than I could ever earn. It was obviously all gift. I came to then find that all that I had done to try to be good for God could be shed and I could live in a trust that I am loved and have a hope that love will make a way for me to be me and to be shared and that will make a difference. Therefore, my motto, “I am a theologian who is committed to being loving and nurturing in all my relationships” is my emotional location between a God who gives and a network of relations where I share. This guides my teaching, counseling, fathering, husbandry, writing, and so on. It all feels authentic to me. I can only speak for myself, but if I did not experience love, I would not write about it. My greatest challenge is that I think it is difficult for people to really believe I have found anything different than they have found. I feel like I have found the cure for relational cancer and they do not even know they have a disease. I deal with that by acting with love and respect to all I meet and not worrying to much about those I do not meet. I only want tangible love, I am not into the theory as an end in itself.
Richard: A third book in the Face to Face series is coming out soon. Are you doing any book launches? Are there any more in the series in the pipeline?
Marty: I am trying to learn how to do this book launch thing. It is a very significant work, almost double the size of my doctoral dissertation, but edited first by my 18 year old daughter—meaning it is vast and deep, but accessible and readable by anyone. That is a hard task! I want to launch for the theologically inclined, but also for pastors, and everyday Christians to believe that there is so much more to be gained in living in a meaningful relationship with the Triune God. I need to have discussions like these to have people see that I am not about theory alone, but about the practice of developing meaningful relationships with God, our neighbor, family, and ourselves. The readers out there are overwhelmed with material, so I have to launch as personally as I can to make the bridge. That is one of the reasons I am coming to Australia and NZ
I cut out almost half of this third volume because it was getting too long and went beyond the question of how do we relate to the Triune God revealed in Jesus. It could be a book on Relational Ministry that participates in the life of God, and not just for pastors, but for all including those who collect garbage. I have about 40 or more books in my BOOKS TO WRITE file. I have whole new genres to write if I can find an audience that really wants to pursue this avenue of personal relating with God and one another. I should probably be glad to be a writer who is discovered 100 years after I die and makes a difference, like Kierkegaard. But I am not sure that will make it happen. But if I could get a readership, boy do I have books to write. Some are theology, like the Heart to Heart series which take the Psalms and to some Kaleidoscopic things. Or the Voice to Voice series that rewrites books like Romans in the voices of each of the persons of the Trinity. Plus, there are relational books like The Relational X-Ray, Relational Health and Hygiene, Mental Footnotes, and How We Relate to Phantoms We Create, and so on. Plus there are Virtual Communions, and Sitting in On Triune Conversations. I am filled up and ready to pour out, but am largely unknown by the larger community, though beloved by those who know me. I am waiting on God to keep moving me forward. I open every door that opens and live fully in that space. That is my pipeline!
Richard: I hear you are coming to Australia and New Zealand later this year. Can you tell us why and what you hope to achieve?
Marty: I am coming to AU and NZ in most of October and November to be personally present to share my ideas and books. I will be in the major cities of Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane to engage schools that will have me in conversations, some lectures (I prefer to dialog) and tell people about my books and the relationships to which they point. In NZ I will be in Auckland and Dunedin mostly, though I hope to get out to churches and have conversations. I hope to develop friendships that can continue on to see a different kind of revival—a relational revival. If I can begin to help in discovering what healthy relationships look like and give practical steps that begin the change, I will be satisfied.
Richard: Who do you hope to impact and what could happen as a result of engaging relational theology?
Marty: Pastors, professors, students, people who wish they could understand theology that affects everyday life. If a few get what this revolution is about , there will not be conversions to Christianity but there will be Christians who will love each other and their neighbors in a way that will beg the question, What happened to you all? And there will be an authentic ability to answer that love came to town and transformed everything. Yes, it came from God, but there will be a new level of authenticity in love that is invitationally from God but keeps them from becoming religions. Rather they will become friends of God and one another. That could change the world. I am a practitioner of theology, meaning if it does not change how we relate, the theory is inadequate. Relational Theology in AU and NZ is a good fit for a postmodern culture who is tired of God-talk that never hits the ground. But they are great people who love their land and other people. They are ready for authentic Christianity that gets at what is real.
Richard: What does your future look like if Relational Theology gains traction?
Marty: I am 58, so I have about 30-40 years to write and travel to explore what Relational thinking can do in the many contexts that need conversations to discover what God could do in that place as an Incarnation of Triune love in the body of persons who live in that place. I have no magic bullet that cures all diseases. I have a place within the love of God’s life of expanding connection to be a gatherer and facilitator. I cannot put up 95 thesis and hope to change the world. But give me 95 meals with people who want to talk about how to love each other, the neighbors, and let the love of God be known and experience, and I will be satisfied that I have been the catalyst of change and they will be the fire that Jesus promised when He said He would set the earth on fire. I do not think we are to merely be strangely warmed within, although that is not bad, we are to be ignited in how we relate, what happens between is in our knowing and being known. Now we know in part, but then we will know as we have been fully known. That is a vision of heaven for Paul, but I think that in Christ heaven begins here and now. That is where Relational Theology can take us.
Richard: You wear a lot of “hats”. Just how many different jobs do you do?
Marty: I am a theologian who teaches at the undergrad, graduate, and doctoral levels. I am a writer of nonfiction on personal relations. I am a community organizer who gathers deans and their schools to plan conferences and other collaborations—but beginning with relationships. I am a marriage and family therapist who also does life coaching. I am the curator of an art gallery (Inscape Gallery). I am the chief cook and gardener in our family. I am a speaker who serves at camps, adult education events, and preaches occasionally.
Richard: Is that kind of multitasking the future of academic careers?
Marty: If things go the way they are, probably so. Teaching is diminishing. Online is reducing the need for faculty. Churches are reducing staff and some are closing or merging. There are exceptions, of course.
If I have my way in what I am doing in the Pacific Northwest, we will develop a culture that theologically prepares leaders in the arts, the business world, the world of helping relationships, consultants, writers, community developers, hospitality specialists, and on the list goes. There are glimpses of these thing happening, but we need to create a culture that values a meaningful existence over a monetary security as the result of our careers. That once birthed the great universities of the world, but was lost with the Enlightenment. We need a new Reformation, called the Great Transformation, that educates for a meaningful life for all humans and the world—that is the result of the Kingdom of God. It values the unity of us all but with a rich diversity that does not seek uniformity. I have big dreams, but they are all ones that come by reading the Bible and then looking up and saying why not, by God’s grace and leading? Then there would be a future for academics who serve God by empowering the people to share life and use wisely what we have for the glory of God and the enactment of love in our communities and families. None of that is natural to us as humans, we are self-protective. But the Gospel changes our focus and we need academics to live with Prophetic Imagination to envisage what that looks like starting with that biblical engagement, but then looking up and following the Spirit’s lead.
Richard: What advice would you give someone who is thinking about doing a theological degree or pursuing an academic career?
Marty: Do not look only at the degree, think about a person who you see doing what you feel called to do and study with them. Learning happens with persons first, programs may facilitate that, but they can replace it and you just have a lot of puzzle pieces but no picture of what you are doing. Study Theology to discover who God is and what God is doing in the world so you can join in God’s work. Orient yourself to see that all the rational thinking you do is for a relational application. If seeing that Jesus is God and Human by definition does not lead you to see that God wants to connect with Humanity by coming to be with the other He loves, you will probably miss the point of every other doctrine. Ask what God wants to change in the world and then find a way to be an agent of that change. Do not shortcut and do social work as a human concern alone, learn to care socially within the broader life of the People of God. We are not each supermen and superwomen, we are parts of a body that needs the other parts to become sustainable for long term impact instead of a brief relief. Pursue the academy, but like dentists, who as PhD students are trying to move the whole profession along, not just to clarify what we have said in the past. Do research to answer the questions of how to do theology so it changes sick churches, families, individuals, societies, and so on. In asking what a healthy church is, do not go first to sociology or psychology, go first to who Jesus is as one who comes and serves as a leader and accepts broken people and forms connections. Then ask if that is happening in the churches in your area. Don’t criticize, be the doctor who pursues healing. We need healing in our churches, leaders, families, but we do not need philosophical doctors, we need doctors like the Apostle Paul who begins to help churches by addressing their theological issues and then moves to the implied practice of healthy implications. That is the reason we have the New Testament. We need that kind of New Testament scholars, but they are rare!
Richard: What is your favorite Barth quote?
Marty: “I may now hope that the author of this book [Barth himself] may have become familiar to many readers, if not to all, as a normal human being who is considerably involved in all sorts of human affairs, and distinguished from other men only by the simple fact that he chiefly has devoted his days to a special emphasis on the question of proper theology and that he would be happy if others would also devote themselves in all seriousness to this question again and again.” Evangelical Theology p. x. from his introduction.
I love his humanity, humility, and hope, ultimately for a theology of freedom that looks ahead and hopes. I resonate with that.
Richard: Marty, there’s only one more question left, and it’s a bit of a tradition in our interviews. I call it, Tweet the Gospel. What is the gospel in 140 characters or less?
Marty: The God who creates the world in love has freshly re-engaged lost humanity to restore the intimacy that is the freeing fulfillment of the love of the tri-personal God.
Richard: Wow, thanks, Marty, for being a part of our interview today. I hoped you enjoyed it and if you need a place to stay in Australia that’s in the middle of nowhere, just give me a call.
Marty: It was an extreme pleasure and I hope that it is a bridge to many friendships. I will see if I can meet up somehow to see you face to face. Thanks for the privilege of this table talk!