Christianity, as we have often said before in this column, is a ‘relational religion’. This means that in a Christian view of the world relationships precede – in time and in importance – the material world, although intimately connected with that world.
It means that getting relationships right, or putting them right, is of greater significance than increasing national or personal wealth. It means that each of us derives our value not from our job and what we can do, but from our relationships, who we are. The question I wish to address briefly here is how such a view influences the credibility of the gospel for British people today, and how this approach highlights differences with other faiths.
Relationships and reality
We might first consider whether a description of life as being primarily about relationships fits with our experience. Everyone, of course, has relationships so we are all ‘amateur experts’ on the subject; in this sense it is easier to engage the broad mass of people in debate on this than on more academic issues relating to propositional truth. At a personal level, psychologists and counsellors tell us that it is close personal relationships which determine our identity, security and self-esteem; they are thus the key to well-being and happiness. Most people when asked what is most important in their lives will point to a person rather than a thing; ‘my wife’ is a less alarming response to such a question than ‘my Porsche’!
In terms of our working lives, too, there is growing recognition that it is relationships which are the key to success in business and the effective delivery of public services. Many companies have now committed themselves to a stakeholder approach, based on building relationships with customers, employees, suppliers, shareholders and the wider community, rather than the narrower focus on short-term profits. The goals of education, health, and criminal justice can all be defined in relational terms, and quality of relationships inside and outside those services is clearly key to them achieving their objectives. So for Christians to argue that relationships are the key to understanding what life is about is increasingly a credible idea.
Relationships and eternal life
A second question is to ask what vision of life after death is provided by Christianity as a ‘relational religion’, when compared with other religions. Christians believe the words of Jesus when he says, ‘Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent’, (John 17:3), i.e. eternal life is an ever-deepening relationship with God himself. I have often wondered how long it will take to get to know God if it takes a lifetime to begin to understand my wife! If heaven is the perfect fulfilment, through Christ, of every human contact, hell is the withdrawal of God – the source of all love – from every relationship. Imagine your family, work, and neighbour relationships without love. Imagine the loneliness of never connecting with another person, never being affirmed, cared for, or understood and you begin to get a picture of hell. This non-relational existence is illustrated with great insight by C. S. Lewis in his book, The Great Divorce , where at one point he describes every individual spinning away from all others into the eternity of space.
The Eastern religions offer a very different version of life after death. Eventually we shall all reach the state of ‘nirvana’ where each person’s individual consciousness is merged into that of every other person. All individuality will disappear, in the same way that the distinctiveness of each snowflake is lost when the snow melts into a pool of water. Some believe that nirvana represents perfect oneness, and therefore perfect love, but how can there be love without another person to love? And how is it possible to describe this ‘oneness’ without something to compare it with? All relationships are lost, subsumed into the great nothingness. This end to personal relationships casts a long shadow over the significance and value of relationships today.
The Islamic view of the afterlife is personal rather than impersonal, but as Allah is ‘by himself’ in eternity, the values of love, interdependence, mutuality and co-operation do not obviously reflect the character of God, and thus are not likely to be the expression of his will in heaven. The same uncertainty about the ultimate value of relationships is true in Judaism as well.
So, in a very special way, for Christians the language of relationships is ‘our language’. In exploring them, promoting them, analysing them and ‘getting them right’, we are – consciously or unconsciously – drawing people onto ‘our turf’. People are much more likely to understand the biblical message, the significance of Jesus and the forgiveness he offers, if they have learnt to see the world in relational terms, and appreciate how his word provides a guide to every relationship we have in every area of our lives.