It is very interesting that we use the word “relationship” to describe everything from God to our lifestyle. More interesting still, is that, used in this manner, the word dates back to only around the mid-20th century. There are older examples, but the psycho-social meaning that it carries today does not appear until around 1940. This also means that no one, prior to that time, spoke about having a “relationship” with God. The word does not belong to the grammar of classical Christianity and represents, at best, a distortion of the faith. In truth, it also distorts what it means to relate to other people and the world around us. There is a better way to think and speak about these things.
Hidden within the word is an assumption about how we interact, how we belong, how we affect others and are affected by them in turn. In general parlance, the assumptions are almost all rooted in voluntaristic notions of what it means to be human. To be in “relationship” with someone, or something, is generally taken to mean a conscious and chosen mutuality. It matches well the concepts that permeate our consumer culture.
Relationships are things we choose as we shape the social character of our lives. This notion elevates our perceived psychological experience to the defining role within our lives. The illusion created by the language of relationship is that our world can consist of those things we choose while ignoring others. In that sense, the language of relationship only describes what we value and hold as important, but not things as they actually are. You may say that what matters to you is your immediate circle of friends, but this is a delusion. “Relationship” frequently describes nothing more than the boundaries of our narcissism. Our lives are connected with all lives, including those we fail to value or acknowledge.
We are not self-created. We are not the products of our choices and decisions. While our choices and decisions have a clear impact on our most immediate surroundings, they do not create those surroundings nor sustain them. The moment of our death will not mark a moment of significant change in the world. In that sense, thinking of my life as something constituted by relationships, particularly those relationships that I value, is delusional. We belong to the whole of reality.
St. Paul rightly observes that “in [God] we live, and move, and have our being.” The concept of “relationship” easily diminishes our understanding of God. God is not an analog to human consciousness writ large. We are not “relating” to God in the way we imagine ourselves to be “relating” to other willing consciousnesses. When someone makes a declaration about their “relationship” with God, they are describing little more than a particular aspect of their own psyche (and, even then, only its most conscious aspects). But if, as Christians hold, God is the ground of all being, then we cannot choose to have “no relationship” with Him. The whole of our existence is sustained and defined by its relation to God.
For most, the term “relationship” is bound up with the word “personal.” Some contend that because God is person (the Trinity), we may have a “personal” relationship with Him. Again, this is largely a projection of the modern fascination with psychologically constructed notions. That God is “person,” has very little to do with what we generally mean by “person” and “personal.”
For example, our use of “person” would naturally conclude that in saying there are three persons in the Holy Trinity, there are three distinct centers of consciousness. But this is not at all clear in the teaching of the Church. Indeed, it is affirmed that there is “one mind, one will” in the Trinity. More than that, it is generally understood that our personhood is something that is, at present, in a state of becoming. “We are not yet what we shall be” (1 John 3:2). Whatever we may say, the psychological construct of personhood as a center of consciousness and free-will is a radical reduction and distortion of its truth.
A particular aspect of this distortion is its dependence on the concept of radical individualism. The self as individual consciousness ignores the wide range of human experience (and existence) that is shared and common. It has undoubtedly contributed to the deep sense of loneliness and alienation that marks modern human beings. As the means of our “relationship” with God, it frequently creates the sense of one lonely ego relating to another lonely ego (however divine). It also exalts the will to a place of supremacy, despite all of the complications that surround the reality of human freedom.
Scripture and the Tradition do not speak of a “relationship” with God. Rather, they speak in terms of “union” (henosis) and “communion” (koinonia). “Relationship” requires a distance – it is inherently the lonely and the Lonely. The faith, however, teaches that what is lost in human sin is not such a notion of “relationship,” but of actual communion, true participation in the life of God.
Human existence is a complex reality, not confined to the narrow range of our conscious self. Simple biology alone should tell us this. But biology itself is also inadequate to speak of the fullness of our existence. Our individual existence is also a corporate existence. Our biology is an inherited reality, that inheritance itself containing an individual summation of countless lives that have gone before. The cultural context in which we live is similarly complex and we do not and cannot exist apart from it.
When the Church speaks of Christ, it recognizes that the fullness of this reality has been gathered into the Godhead. Christ is not a mere individual. He is a Jew in whom the whole experience of Israel is recapitulated. Indeed, He is the Second Adam, the entire human experience that can be called “Adam” being recapitulated in Him. His biology is the flesh of the Virgin, human flesh, utterly united with all human flesh. Christ speaks as God, but He also speaks as man, indeed, as the “Whole Man.” Our existence, in Him, is made to partake of this same reality.
My life and my death are not individualized, isolated moments. Baptized into Christ, my death is taken up in His death just as His life is taken up in my life. Paul can say, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). Such theological statements are often treated as abstractions, mere ideas to which we assent. But these are not ideas – they are a manner of being and existence.
This reality of communion is the foremost aspect of the Church’s sacramental life. Baptism, for example, is not a personal transaction between a human consciousness and a Divine (“I now have a personal relationship with Christ”). Such a contractual construal of salvation (sometimes hidden by the language of “covenant”) distorts what is given to us in Scripture. Our life with Christ is a life of union, commonality, communion, sharing, coinherence. Very difficult for us is that fact that our culture champions radical individualism and the self as volitional consciousness. We have learned (or been taught) to ignore the larger, truer nature of our existence.
Our lives do not consist of those with whom we have a “relationship.” Our lives consist of the whole of reality. The greater question is whether we choose to live in that reality or to live in the make-believe world of our own choosing. I want more than a relationship: in Christ, I want everything.
All things are for your sakes, that grace, having spread through the many, may cause thanksgiving to abound to the glory of God. (2Co 4:15)