When on holiday at the Kenyan coast this summer I went snorkelling inside the reef. Under the water is another world, where a whole host of sea creatures live in and around the coral: multicoloured fish, sea-slugs and snails, eels and scorpion fish. Looking from the cliffs you see the different colours of the water, the white of the waves breaking over the reef, the vastness of the ocean. But you miss entirely this underwater reality in all its immense variety and complexity, unless you go down and look.
What we call ‘The R Factor’ is also a hidden dimension. Watching a man walking down a City street you see his business suit, briefcase, club tie, umbrella. What you cannot see are his relationships – with his wife, children, siblings and mother; his friends, work colleagues and business customers; his GP and dentist; and with God. Yet it is these relationships which are the key to his behaviour: for example, the time he chooses to leave work to go home in the evening, or whether he decides to buy a new car. And it is these relationships which will determine his eternal destiny.
Taking a business example: a company can be understood from its income and expenditure account and its balance sheet. It has physical assets such as offices, cars and computers; it has sales to clients resulting in funds in bank accounts; it pays insurance premiums, taxes and pension contributions. But this same company can also be looked at from a ‘relational’ perspective as a huge matrix of relationships involving employees, customers, suppliers, directors, investors, regulators, the local community and others.
The commercial value of these relationships is recognised on the balance sheet. When Philip Green made a bid for M&S recently, he offered £9 billion; the assets were valued by one commentator at £3 billion. The difference between these figures could be described in economic terms as ‘the present discounted value of the future income stream’. It could also be described as the value of the company’s present relationships, sometimes called ‘goodwill’.
Relationships are a biblical priority
Christianity is a ‘relational’ religion. The Bible teaches that before the physical world came into existence, the persons of the Godhead existed in relationship to one another: ‘In the beginning was the Word’, as John says at the very start of his gospel. Communication precedes matter; relationships are ultimate reality.
The priority of relationships runs right through the Bible. ‘Covenant’ is a word describing long-term, faithful relationship. Righteousness means not just the absence of guilt, but the practice of right relationships. The cross, Paul teaches us, is about reconciliation, restoring broken relationships. Eternal life, says Jesus, ‘is that you may know the Father and the Son’: more relationships language. Christian ethics and lifestyle are concerned primarily with ‘love’, a way of describing not an economic or financial concern but a quality of relationship. Arguably, Christianity makes relationships more central its understanding of reality than any other of the world’s religions.
Seeing the world relationally
Of course, the relational and the physical dimensions of reality are inseparably intertwined. When a person dies, there is both the expiring of the physical body and the separation of the person from their close human relationships. When a person has sexual intercourse with another, there are profound implications both physically and relationally. However, it is the relational aspects we often find hardest to identify. When we buy a TV, do we consider the relationship implications for those living in the household, especially the impact on the amount and the topics of conversation? When we go on holiday, do we consider which relationships will be strengthened by the time we spend together, and which may be threatened by our absence?
To see the world as God sees it requires that we learn to recognise the relational implications of all that happens to us at work and at home each day. This is an exciting, if somewhat disturbing, voyage of discovery. Every conversation is a relational opportunity. Every decision has relational implications – where we send our children to school, where we go to church, how much time we spend in the office, what kind of car we drive and how we drive it, how much money we set aside for retirement, how we vote – the list is endless. We need to consider each decision from the perspective of our relationship with God and our relationships with other people.
There is no ‘quick fix’ to achieve relational awareness. Our society is committed to individualism and materialism, the antithesis of relational commitment. We are encouraged by the media to see the world in financial terms, or in terms of pleasure, entertainment and human rights for us as individuals. But to see how collectively and individually the events and decisions shaping our world are impacting on people’s relationships we need to wear different glasses, and march to a different drum. This is one of the greatest challenges facing Western Christians in the world today.