Christianity: A relational religion?

By Christopher Hancock 05 Dec 2017

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First, let me say what a pleasure it is to be at this conference on 'New Avenues for Christian Witness'. I have been fascinated to hear from Michael Schluter about the character and development of 'Relationism', and am glad to have an opportunity to think aloud publicly about how 'the relational thesis' is 'rooted in Christian doctrine and biblical ethics', to quote from the Jubilee Policy Group's Political Christians in a Plural Society (1994).

I have been given the title 'Christianity: A Relational Religion?  Oh, that every question one was asked could be as easily answered. Is Christianity about relationships? Absolutely, from beginning to end. Here, for starters, are what might be called 'Seven Relational Themes in Classical Christianity' - for reasons which will become clear, we might call them 'The C Factor'.

Seven Relational Themes in Classical Christianity

First, the fact of creation.  From Genesis to Revelation, Christians read of a particular way faith understands the nature of the universe.  The moon and the stars, humankind and procreation, are reflections of a creative, interactive relationship between God and the cosmos. What's more, Christians not only say there is a creative relationship, like a potter to clay, that undergirds the very air we breathe and life we live, there is a particular quality to this relationship that involves both the creator and the creature in a qualitatively different relationship from clay to the hands of the potter. The Christian doctrine of creation is, to the eye of faith, about more than a divine fiat.  Isn't this the force of the Psalmist's cry, 'What is man that thou are mindful of him?' (Ps 8:4). God both creates and relates to creation in a loving, personal, on-going way that inspires scientific wonder and human worship.  The first relational theme, 'the fact of creation'.

Second, the gift of covenant.  God's creative, loving, personal relationship to what he has made is sealed by a series of divinely disposed covenants. There is the pre-diluvian covenant with Noah in Genesis 6:18, and the 'rainbow' covenant never again to destroy the earth in Genesis 9:9-17. There is the promissory covenant of an inheritance to Abram 'and his seed for ever' in Genesis 15 and 17 scaled by the purificatory act of circumcision.


'Dankgebet nach Verlassen der Arche Noah' by Domenico Morelli c.1901


There is the Mosaic covenant that particularises God's love and will for Israel establishing the legal criteria according to which God's people are to `Be holy' as God is holy (Lev 19:2). There is the messianic Davidic Covenant, alluded to in 2 Samuel 7 and celebrated in Psalms 89 and 132, for example, that bespeaks God's sure, specific and sovereign oath to the house and line of David his servant. There is, last, the 'New Covenant', the everlasting covenant, spoken of in Galatians 4:4. And Hebrews 9:26, and embodied in the life and death of Jesus, the Christ. He is the covenant fulfilment of God's covenant acts and promises in the Old Testament. His blood seals the new covenant' (Matt 26:28, Mk 14:24, Lk 22:20, 1 Cor 11:25) and consummates God's work of salvation. The 'gift of covenant'; the second relational theme.

Third, the call to community.  Implicit in the creation of male and female, and the restrictive social codes of the Levitical Jaw, is the call to community and thence to a set of ordered interpersonal relationships governed by God's word and will. The biblical theme of 'the people of God', out of which healthy theologies of the Church grow, involves Israel and 'the new Israel' in a life marked by distinctiveness, discipline and decision. Over this community God's spiritual vocation and kingdom ethic for that 'new society' reign. For the Church is the community of those who have responded to God’s call and invitation into his life, will and future.  Its dynamic heart is relationship with God and relationships with others, fulfilling Christ's new commandment, 'To love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbour as yourself (Matt 22:37-40). The third relational theme: 'the call to community'.

Fourth, the act of contrition. Here we enter more deeply into the biblical mechanism whereby relationships with God and neighbour are to be sustained. The conscious act of contrition - otherwise termed penitence, repentance, or confession of sin - has a place throughout the scriptures as the essential precondition of divine forgiveness and as the appropriate acknowledgement of human failure.          'A broken and contrite heart', we read in Psalm 51:17, 'Thou wilt not despise'. That is the sacrifice God desires, though in the Old Testament that sacrifice found physical expression in the daily and annual purificatory and atoning offerings ordained by God. 'Be devoted to one another ... Honour one another .., live in harmony .., Do not repay evil for evil ... but overcome evil with good': this, writes St Paul in Romans 12:9-21, is the style of life to be found among those who 'present their bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God.' This is the spiritual sacrifice now offered to God by Christians, in a spirit of repentance and faith that looks to God for grace, peace and forgiveness on the basis of Christ's sacrifice on the cross 'once for all'. Insofar as Christians fail to keep God's law of love theirs is to be humble mind 'that counts others better', 'does not look only to their own interests' (Phil 2:3,4), and 'confesses sins to one another'. The fourth relational theme in classical Christianity, 'the act of contrition'.

Fifth, the word of confession.   I use 'confession' here in the technical sense of declaration, or public profession of allegiance.  For classical Christianity testifies to the centrality of God's word of command to confess faith in God and God's son, Jesus Christ. 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One Lord', we hear the Old Testament people of God declare in the Shema. This word of confession is central to Old Testament praise, prayer and devotion. Likewise, in the New Testament, 'to confess' (homologein) is the root of personal and credal faith. 'If you confess with your lips, "Jesus is Lord", and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved', we read in Romans 10:9.  But it's important to see that this 'word of confession' has a two-fold connection with our theme today. On the one hand, it forms the foundation of the human response of faith that establishes a relationship with God; and on the other hand, it constitutes the substance of the faith community's public witness to God's mighty acts in history and in Jesus Christ, and thereby the content both of its internal relationships in the Church and its external relation to the world. True, that word of confession may at times find embodiment in actions rather than words, after all as St Francis once declared, 'Preach the gospel everywhere; if necessary use words'. It may find expression in ritual or service rather than evangelism or preaching, but nevertheless it is the Gospel heart of God's people throughout history. Christianity testifies to the role of verbal communication in general and gospel communication in particular as establishing relationships between God and God's people, and God's people and the world. The fifth relational theme, the word of confession.


Credit: Jon Tyson, via Unsplash


Sixth, the note of celebration.  I am addressing here the theme of worship. Praise, prayer, scripture reading, memory and song together combine to inform the relational core of Judaeo-Christian celebration. We 'remember' what God has done in the community's communion, confession and celebration. We re-establish thereby the community's character, charter and identity. We reconnect, we might say, with who we are and who God is. We join and are joined together in offering back to God a dynamic act of liturgy and worship, inspired by God's spirit and in obedience to His command. We bring and give all that we are and all that we do. Through the community's celebration, it is built up in fellowship and in faith. In worship supremely, as we remember in the Eucharist (literally the thanksgiving), we rediscover ourselves as 'the Body of Christ', in relation to one another under Christ the Head. Worship is central to the relational character of the Christian faith. So it becomes our sixth relational theme as 'the note of celebration'.

Seventh, the hope of consummation. A sense, and subsequently hope, of completion, fulfilment, finality and consummation runs through the Bible. 'The day of the Lord', 'that day', the parousia and the return are the biblical language of this expectation and hope. History is progressing in a purposeful manner. Life has a divinely ordained end, in death, judgement and God's ultimate decision. This has a strong relational sub-text. For in that hope of consummation is the expectation of our relationship to Christ and to one another being fulfilled. At the last, we will see Christ face to face, when the veil of reality is drawn back. Then we will know ourselves 'even as we are known'. Then 'there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain', for the old order, the order of imperfection, and imperfect relationships caused by death, mourning, crying and pain, will be no more. The Christian hope is for a consummation of relationship in eternity.

Here I suggest, are ‘Seven Relational Themes in Classical Christianity’, the C-Factor, as I suggested for obvious reasons, we might call them: the fact of creation, the gift of covenant, the call to community, the act of contrition, the word of confession, the note of celebration and the hope of consummation. This, we might argue, is the minimal, though substantial, core of a biblical perspective on Christianity as a 'relational' religion. There are, however, three further theological extrapolations to be made from this evidence that warrant brief comment.

Three additional theological extrapolations

First, my learned theological colleagues would decry my omission from these seven themes the essentially relational character of the God we confess as Trinity, who, in the words of last Sunday's collect, 'lives and reigns in the perfect unity of love'. It is, some would argue, out of the very nature of God's relational being as Father, Son and Spirit, that Christian faith finds 'vestiges of the Trinity' (vestigia trinitatis) in the relational character both of the human animal as a social creature and of the biblical narrative of God's dealings with the world. Relational language is not then imposed upon the Christian faith and community, it is appropriately extrapolated from the very heart of God and what Christians believe about God as Trinity. The Trinitarian revival sweeping northern European theology can, I believe, provide substantial sophisticated support to socio­political analysis that takes as its central motif the theme of 'relationship'.

Second, my equally learned Protestant colleagues might, however, despite sharing enthusiasm for contemporary Trinitarianism, want to turn up the volume on one theme addressed only in passing in my list of seven. That is, the theme of salvation through the death of Christ.  As Martin Luther put it, 'Preach one thing: the wisdom of the cross'. The Christian narrative, it might be legitimately argued, is not adequately rehearsed if the event of Christ's cross is not accorded pivotal significance. In short, 'It's all very well', they might point out, 'to speak of Christianity in relational terms, if full weight be given to biblical chapters in that narrative that deal with the sundering and fracturing of relationships between God and fellow humans caused by sin. Only in this light can Trinitarian discourse be helpfully introduced into discussion of a Christian perspective on relationships. After all, as has sometimes been stressed, 'there is a cross in the heart of God from all eternity'. God's eternal faithfulness and covenant love are both the counterpoint to humanity's culpable infidelity and in their very nature replete with a desire to restore relationally an errant creation.

Third, my more Catholic, but equally learned, colleagues might chide me for apparently down-playing an incarnational sacramentalism, in which Jesus, as incarnate Son of God, is not only the key to humanity's relationship to God, Jesus is both the ground of the church (by his death) and the essence of the church (by his life). As such, it is in Him literally that the Church in its sacramental, ministerial, and devotional life, 'lives and moves and has its being'. Just as an ultra-Protestant might argue 'Christ is the Covenant', so a hard-line Catholic might claim, 'Christ is the Church'. According to both, He is the basis for each and every relationship in and between God and His people, the Church.  Put simply, the Trinitarian says, 'Remember the Trinity as the ultimate relationship into which we are drawn'; the Protestant says, 'Remember the Cross as the ultimate indictment and hope of every relationship with God and humanity'; the Catholic says, 'Remember the Incarnation and Church as together the very ground of our common life as the people of God on earth.'

I add these three additional theological extrapolations lest 'Christianity' in the title of this talk be represented in this paper as indefinite or monochrome theologically or as lacking plausible alternative locations or discussion of relationships. We have, frankly, already alluded to many potential contexts, or hermeneutic frames, within which the issue of a Christian perspective on relationships might be interpreted - the Trinity, the Fall, the Church, the sacraments, worship, the future, the Gospel.

Theologically, 'relationism' will, I suspect, always be vulnerable to misinterpreting conditioned by the variety of theological contexts in which it is both explained and interpreted.

Relevance for today

In the second half of this paper, I want to consider the relational character of the Christian faith in light of its own distinctiveness and contemporary postmodern society. I want to do this by returning to and reworking my original relational themes in ways that will, I hope, render the power and gift and significance of Christian faith for today's society the more evident.

First, look again at the theme of creation as it pertains to relationships. The key thing I want to stress here is that biblical Christianity does not merely speak of the fact of creation but also of the beauty of creation. 'God looked on all that he had made, and it was very good,' we read in Genesis1:3 1.  I mean beauty in that traditional Christian sense of ordered harmony, moral perfection, and aesthetic excellence.  As such, the creation images the creator.  In the act of creation God imparts something of God's character to the world he has made.  Augustine made much of this, both in his doctrine of creation and in his theology of evil. Its significance for us is, I suggest, that it adds to discussion of relationships as part of the created order a higher moral and particularly aesthetic expectation and obligation. It is out of God's act of creation that Christians then look for an understanding of relationships that reflect their own degree of creativity, ordered harmony, moral perfection, and aesthetic excellence - in short, relationships that are 'good' or 'beautiful'.


Child survivors of Auschwitz


Let me illustrate what such a set of expectations and obligations for relationships might look like.  The holocaust represents to many the ghastly ugliness of human behaviour and relationships.  It epitomises the depth of the potential corruption of the creature and the creation in terms of human relationships and behaviour. In his autobiography of his experiences passing into and out of Auschwitz, the Italian Jewish author Primo Levi writes, 'the Lager was a great machine to reduce us to beasts, we must not become beasts'. Two individuals represented for him resistance to that reduction.  There was Steinlauf, a fifty year old German, who studiously washed himself every day, albeit with ever-diminishing success, simply to refuse the camp's imposition of bestiality, dirt and degradation upon its inmates. There was also Lorenzo, an Italian civilian worker, who Levi writes, 'brought me a piece of bread and the remainder of his ration every day for six months'. 'Thanks to Lorenzo,' Levi adds, 'I managed not to forget that I myself was a man.’ Such actions, I suggest, constitute instances of beauty in relationships as intended by God.  A beauty that preserves order in the midst of chaos, harmony in the midst of dissonance and death, moral excellence in the midst of moral decay, in the words of Isaiah 61:3, 'a crown of beauty instead of ashes'. We may not live in the midst of a holocaust here in Britain, though in parts of the world people do, but we do surely live in a society where too many relationships are far from 'good' and lack a vision of the possibility of beauty. It is, I believe, for Christians to hold up again a moral and aesthetic ideal for human relationships today.

Second, look again at the theme of covenant.  Biblical Christianity can, I believe, take this central biblical motif and extrapolate from it, a vision of relationships that possess a depth, a durability and a degree of fidelity that depend upon God both for their character and for their continuance. Christians must speak not merely of the gift of covenant, but also the fidelity of covenant. God's covenant love (chesed) and faithfulness (erneth) are the ground of his trustworthiness and the image of his unchanging truth. The root word for faithfulness (emeth, emunah) is connected with the word Amen. As T C Vriezen has written of God's trustworthiness and truth, 'He may even be called the God of the Amen'. The Lord is merciful and gracious', we read in Exodus 34:6, 'slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.' It is this God who inspires Paul to write in 2 Corinthians 1:15-24, 'As surely as God is faithful, our word to you has not been Yes and No… For all the promises of God find their Yes in Him.' Paul's commitment to the Church in Corinth was; quite simply, an image of God's covenant commitment of Old, now fulfilled in Christ.

If God is the God of the covenant Amen, His people are to be the people of the covenant Amen.  They are in all their relationships to image God's covenant love and faithfulness.  Theirs is, I suggest, to be a constant call to society away from relationships built upon the litigious inadequacy of a contract, that is merely human agreement made in law. In its place Christians claim the possibility and obligation of an understanding of relationships that derive their virtue from a God of covenant obligation and lasting commitment.  According to such a criterion, social and personal relations acquire a higher court of appeal and accountability.  A work-force is not bound or held by contract but by covenant. A friendship is not sustained by convenience but by covenant. A marriage is not sustained by conjugality but by covenant.  Occasionally we glimpse this: the relation who after the war had his ordination training paid for by the bank for which he had previously worked, the friend whose hospital employer continued sick pay benefits beyond the obligatory date to honour his work, the elderly man, Charlie, I met in my first parish who, despite his own virtual blindness and crippling lameness visited his pitifully demented wife of sixty years on the grounds, as he said to me one day, that he had made a promise "till death us do part".  That, I suggest, is the vision of relationships Christians embrace. It is a mere dream apart from the gift of covenant love to the heart of the faithful.  But what a gift to postmodern Britain in which relationships of contract, convenience or merely custom prevail.

Third, look again at the theme of community. It may be because of returning to England after six years in the States, but I've become acutely conscious of what one might call the Christian obligation to uphold the integrity of a community, and I mean that in both senses of the word integrity - both the truthfulness and the unity of a community. Relativism, as epitomised in contemporary American culture, is by definition fragmenting and fragmentary. There is no holistic view of truth. Personal opinion prevails. The effect of this is to create a society held together by constitution and co-operation that are both under daily pressure to accommodate to powerful pressure groups and ideological 'correctness'. We see similar pressures growing in Britain. The integrity of a community is a direct expression of the interplay of its concept of truth and personal freedom.

But what I want you to see is the Christian critique of this situation. Christianity offers society, I believe, a view of community in which a shared view of truth both unites and holds each individual member mutually accountable to that truth. To use an orchestral analogy, so close to my heart, it presents society with the plausible case of the oboe 'A'. Without the agreed 'A' the orchestra lacks the integrity of being in tune, and thence being able to play pleasantly together. Relativity and dissonance are cousins. Imagine the cello section declaring UDI and tuning to A flat or B flat. What wonderful chaos would be caused! More tragic the consequences we see in society today that lacks an agreed note of truth and so plunges into the dissonance of ideological chaos and the tragedy of personal untruthfulness. On the latter point, one of the abiding personal principles I have brought away from the States, is that in a world of relative truth one need only be relatively truthful.  The consequences are disastrous for both personal and social integrity.


'Reconciliation' at Coventry Old Cathedral (Credit: David Dixon CC BY-SA 2.0)


Beauty, fidelity, integrity, now fourth, a word on the theme of contrition. For Christianity does not merely speak of the need for a contrite heart, but also of the ideal of purity in relationships sustained by forgiveness, the purity of community.  As such, it possesses within itself a higher ideal and power than what some might read as the value of 'saying sorry'. Uniquely among the world's religions Christianity roots relationships in the power of forgiveness, God's and man's. This is a precious treasure to a world and a society gripped by hate and riven by guilt. 'Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you'. This is the message of Ephesians 4:32 and Matthew 6:14 and 15. 'He who forgives ends the quarrel', runs the African proverb. ‘Forgiveness stops sin spreading', wrote Augustine.  'A wise man will make haste to forgive’, wrote Samuel Johnson, 'because he knows the value of time.'

I want to pick up especially the theme of purity that biblical Christianity brings to the subject of relationships. It is 'the pure in heart' who, we are told in Matthew 5:8 'will see God'. It is the pure in heart who will see themselves and their neighbours with the 'yes' of God. I was struck some time ago reading Bishop Westcott's great commentary on Hebrews 4:15, 'For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with us in our weaknesses, but we have one who has been in every way tempted, just as we are - yet was without sin.' There is, he points out, an inseparable connection between sinlessness and sympathy, for only the sinless can perfectly sympathise. The sinful turn in on themselves and thence create barriers to perfect sympathy. Sympathy was a great Victorian humanitarian virtue. It consciously motivated the majority of social reformers. The Christian ideal of purity in relationships opens up the possibility of a level of openness and sympathy and forgiveness that represents a challenging affront to the rampant introverted individualism that, according to Westcott's terms, is so turned in on itself that it cannot, and does not want to, sympathise. Purity opens the way for to the social virtue of sympathy, and the imaging of God's loving sympathy for fallen humanity.

Fifth, a Christian view of relationships is built not merely on 'the word of confession', as we saw previously, but also on the witness of testimony. In other words, there is a deeper dimension to confession than merely professing Christ in faith and proclaiming in society. Christians are called to be 'witnesses', witnesses, as we read in Acts 132, specifically to Christ's resurrection and generally to all God's mighty acts in Jesus in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth' (Acts 1:8). This word witness, from which we derive our word 'martyr', has about it the solemn note of sacrificial testimony and life-denying truth speaking. It is not, I suggest, sufficient for Christians to understand their relationship to Christ and to society as merely a matter of comfortable confession. It is their God-given vocation, I believe, to speak with passion and commitment into the 'naked public square' a bold declaration of God's truth to an ailing and rebellious world   They do this in and through personal and corporate testimony, wrapped in words and embodied in actions.

For too long, perhaps, Christians have been gripped by either the enlightenment ideal of detached observation or the Tractarian vision of godly 'reserve' (as Cardinal Newman called it) about the speaking of the 'mysteries of God'. Contemporary society, moved as it is by the heart more than the head, by passion more than pronouncement, is, I suggest, to be reached not by disembodied logic or cool rational argument, but by the passion and sacrifice of the genuine Christian 'witness', who is willing to risk all for the truth. Evelyn Waugh saw this need back in 1930, and his words have a strangely enduring quality. I quote,

 Civilisation - and by this I do not mean talking cinemas and tinned food, nor even surgery and hygienic houses, but the whole moral and artistic organisation of Europe - has not in itself the power of survival. It came into being through Christianity, and without it has no significance or power to command allegiance. It is no longer possible, as it was in the time of Gibbon, to accept the benefits of civilisation and at the same time deny the supernatural basis on which it rests …Christianity ... is in greater need of combative strength than it has been for centuries.

The 'witness' is quite simply one who hears the truth, sees the need and gives all for glory of God.

That note of glory leads on to my sixth, and penultimate theme, worship. I said at the beginning I would come back to this.  The key point here is simply this: if Christianity speaks of relationships that are marked by beauty, fidelity, integrity, purity and testimony, they are also to inhabit the power of doxology. When Christians speak of giving glory' to God, they are not only, in a Johannine sense, alluding to the work of the Holy Spirit who 'glorifies Christ', but echoing a major biblical theme to do with the praise of God's people. Doxology is, as the Westminster Confession has it, 'the chief end of man'. It is what we are for.  In and through it God's people are defined and directed, and, as the Psalms have it, 'indwelt by God', for God inhabits the praises of His people. It is doxology that responds to the doxa, the glory of God's nature and will, God's creation and faithfulness, God's truthfulness and gift of community, God's forgiveness and gift of the Gospel.  Doxology gives back in praise the gifts freely given by God's grace.

But I want you to see this theme of doxology as both a spiritual vocation and a social virtue. It is, I believe, for the Christian Church to take a lead not only in ascribing glory to God and God's will for society and the Church, but in ascribing worth to human enterprise and achievement, to human sacrifice and excellence. How much we suffer from a society of cynics, and a community of complainers. How much more ready to be fault-finders than praise-givers. There is, though, in the Church by the power of the Spirit of praise, who miraculously turns cold hearts to Christ in adoration and worship, turns ingratitude into thankfulness and nit-picking into nurturing gratitude. How different the work-place, or marriage bed, the classroom or council chamber, if such virtues prevailed.

Last, we return to the theme of the hope of consummation. Much could be said on this theme. I want to mention one deeper dimension from this for a Christian view of relationships. It's simply this, to a postmodern world that believes in an 'infinite horizon of interpretive possibilities' for life, texts, truth and religion, Christians believe in the possibility of finality. That is to say, that life has an end, that ventures have discernible 'ends', that truth has a horizon, that reality is boundaried by the love and grace and will of God. This is a great gift to a society that sees relationships apart from a sense of their true 'end', and life apart from the ultimate 'end' of accountability to God. There is threat for some, challenge for others, hope, I believe, for the majority, in this glorious eschatological dimension to Christian faith and life. There is something essentially logical and reasonable about this, and, as Lesslie Newbigin has written, ‘It will perhaps be the greatest task of the church in the twenty-first century to be a bastion of rationality in a world of unreason”.


'Christianity: a relational religion?' Absolutely, as I said at the beginning, and in deeper ways than we sometimes think. May God give us grace to seek not only the seven themes of classical Christianity but also relationships marked by beauty, fidelity, integrity, purity, testimony, doxology and finality. What a gift the Church can bring to postmodern Britain.


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