Thinking Relationally for Europe's Future

By JubileeCentre 02 Feb 2016

Referendum Briefing Paper no. 2

[We are re-publishing this paper from October 2014 as a useful background to the EU Referendum debate.]

By Philip Powell, Jonathan Tame and Michael Schluter

“It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe – until recently – have been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all of our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning... I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian faith… If Christianity goes, the whole culture goes.” – T. S. Elliot[1]


Europe_flagsTo navigate safely through the ongoing economic and financial crisis in Europe will require the wisdom, skill and judgment of the best economists and politicians on the continent. However, the financial crisis is a symptom of a deeper cultural crisis, which if not addressed, will inevitably recur.

The widespread addiction to debt at all levels, the predominance of short-term financial returns as the driving force in the markets, and a progressive individualism in the culture need to be addressed, for all of them are undermining the cherished values of European society. When demographic and social trends such as long term decline in birth rates and the ageing population are factored in, then the continent needs more than a bailout: it requires a deeper reform at the level of core values and vision.

The Jubilee Centre together with the Christian Political Foundation for Europe (CPFE) and the Federation of Catholic Family Associations in Europe (FAFCE) have been discussing these concerns over the last year, and are seeking to build a consensus around an alternative vision for Europe, one that goes beyond the narrow goals of generating economic growth through policy reforms. While the performance of the economy is vital, a sustainable improvement in European society can only come about by revaluing the central contribution of relationships to social capital, economic progress and cultural life. Without this, the attainment of economic, political and cultural goals, as well as improving wellbeing, will be difficult or even impossible.

Understanding the Crisis

Across Europe there are symptoms and signs of a long term malaise. From the problem of youth unemployment in Southern Europe to high suicide rates in Scandinavia, young people in particular are reaping the consequences of economic and social policies driven by an individualistic, rights-based agenda. This has led to high rates of divorce and cohabitation, and dwindling birth rates. An ageing population and weakened extended families also mean the number of old people living alone is at a record high.

There is also a climate of economic uncertainty due to unsustainable levels of national debt and slow growth that has marked the halting, ‘jobless’ recovery since 2010. People in Europe increasingly distrust politicians and the political process, and the European Union is perceived by many as distant, inefficient and corrupt. All this has led to the rise in popularity of far-right political groups and there is a growing threat of violence and social unrest.

The Underlying Causes

Arguably there are four ‘big ideas’ that are driving European culture, forming an interlocking and mutually reinforcing social and economic paradigm. Individualism and Consumerism operate at a personal level and Capitalism and Statism (Big State) operate at the structural level.

Individualism wheelConsumerism’s ideal of pursing unlimited ‘freedom of choice’, disconnected from having to pay a price or deal with the consequence of our choices, has become a moral absolute in Western society. The individualistic ethic of freedom, ‘I am an independent person and I can behave however I choose as long as no one else is hurt’ leads to a culture of irresponsibility and breakdown of social obligations.

Capitalism is both individualistic and materialistic and does not meet the deep longing of the human soul. Unfettered capitalism since the end of the Cold War has led to unacceptable inequalities of wealth and income, and the financial markets are plagued with greed and short-termism. The State is expected to rectify the excesses of the market, but is increasingly powerless to control giant, multinational corporations.

These four ideologies form the hidden ecology of European society, which is undermining civil society and middle institutions such as extended families. Some of the unintended social and relational consequences of this include:

  • Rootlessness, as families are fragmented through labour mobility and relationship breakdown.
  • Neglect of family life as individuals pursue careers in a culture of long working hours.
  • An entitlement culture that demands something for nothing, whether that is support from the state or consumer goods bought on credit.
  • A welfare state that can allow or even incentivise worklessness and family breakdown.
  • Unsustainable levels of personal, corporate and government debt.

An Alternative Way Forward

“Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step forward. If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.” – Ivan Illich

There is an urgent need for an alternative social paradigm for organising society and pursuing public policy goals that goes beyond the notion of the autonomous individual consuming goods and services in a free-market. We need a renewed ethic of relational responsibility to help prevent European society from sliding towards the kind of extremism which has caused such damage in the past.

What can bring about such change? Ivan Illich observed that to change society you must tell a different story. This will show how our culture has been taken captive by the deceptive philosophies of individualism and materialism, which are steadily eroding what is most important in life: our ability to relate well in our families, workplaces, neighbourhoods and institutions.

The alternative story is that life is all about relationships.

As human beings we derive our identity, develop our values and character, build families and organisations and form wider societies – all through overlapping networks of relationships. Relationships are not just instrumental, a means to other ends; they are valuable in themselves and essential to our personal wellbeing and the flourishing of society.

This idea has been turned into a framework for social reform by the Jubilee Centre and its sister-organisations over the past thirty years through their efforts to translate and apply a Christian vision for society into our modern, secular-pluralistic 21st century context. They have coined the term ‘Relational Thinking’ to summarise this approach.

Relational Thinking

Relational Thinking is a social philosophy which seeks close and just relationships in public and private life for social harmony and economic well-being; it is based on the relational values of the Judaeo-Christian tradition, but is open to those of all faiths and none.

Cop rev 2This approach begins with a ‘Copernican revolution’ in the way that people see the world. For example, rather than material wealth being the goal and centre of our ‘thought-universe’, with relationships serving the interests of economic growth and finance, relationships are placed at the centre and economic and financial concerns have to serve that priority.

At a personal level, Relational Thinking redefines health, poverty and pensions. It provides a framework to understand what is happening within families and communities which enables us to identify more sustainable policies going forwards.

This perspective provides a means of analysing the reasons for falling levels of social capital and knowing what to do about it, or assessing the strength of an organisation’s stakeholder relationships (through use of the ‘Relational Proximity® Framework’).

Relational Thinking provides a framework for setting the purpose or goals of organisations, and of sectors of public life, e.g. companies, education, the criminal justice system, and the health sector. It also gives us a fresh way of thinking about the environment and national debt as international and intergenerational relationship issues.

The Spiritual and Philosophical Basis of Relational Thinking

Where does this idea come from, and how much weight can be placed on it? The Jubilee Centre understands it as integral to the biblical vision for society.

Christianity is relational through and through, and is unique among world religions in its emphasis on relationships:

  • The Trinity is an understanding of God as intrinsically and eternally relational
  • Human beings are created in God’s image for relationship with God and with one another
  • The consequence of man’s disobedience is the breakdown of divine-human and interpersonal relationships
  • The story of Israel, based around a covenant between God and his people, is a relational narrative
  • Biblical law (Torah) is God’s design for building a relational society
  • The incarnation is God coming to earth to demonstrate the meaning and practice of right relationships
  • The central event in Christian understanding of world history – the Cross – has an overall relational purpose: to restore humanity’s relationship with God
  • Christian ethics and lifestyle are expressed in relational terms
  • The hallmark of the Christian community (the church) is loving relationships

Decalogue_parchment_by_Jekuthiel_Sofer_1768Relational Thinking places particular emphasis on biblical law. This is because the main part of the Bible addressing the big issues of public life, such as the economy, finance, welfare, work, criminal justice and public administration, is the Old Testament, particularly the Torah. Far from being obsolete for the New Testament church, the Law is upheld by Jesus – but he interprets the essential meaning of it to be about good and right relationships – loving God and loving neighbour (Matthew 22:34-40).

Relational Thinking also draws from Catholic social teaching with its emphasis on solidarity and subsidiarity. It agrees with much of Personalism but goes beyond it to include public, ‘functional’ relationships, based on the principles of biblical law.

While Christian reflection and biblical teaching have been at the heart of the development of Relational Thinking, we believe those of other religious convictions or none will find many aspects of Relational Thinking attractive because humanity is created in God’s image – relationally.

Towards a Relational Narrative and Strategy

In twenty or fifty years from now, what will the story of Europe be if things continue the way they are? The ‘democracy and human rights’ narrative (more freedom) and the ‘liberal free-market’ narrative (more growth) have led us to this point of crisis. If there is another collapse in the banking system, or if inflation is allowed to escalate in order to reduce debt levels, there could be widespread social unrest.

It is urgent to build an alternative now to the relationally impoverished narrative of individual rights and consumerism; there is a more attractive story of right and just relationships, which can bring hope to European society. It can help re-cast terms like poverty, human rights and social capital in order to focus on alleviating relational poverty, promoting relational rights and responsibilities and achieving relational wealth.

Relational Thinking can form the basis for a cultural narrative that is intellectually convincing, emotionally compelling and culturally credible.

A strategy for change

“No one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins.” – Mark 2:22

This is not merely a self-help strategy. Since virtually every aspect of public life is mediated through relationships, improving the quality and strength of relationships will lead to higher levels of organisational effectiveness, community cohesion, and provision of welfare. At the heart of the proposed strategy for reform is transformed organisations and institutions.

European society has been changed in the past through revolutions from the bottom and through legislation from the top. However, a peaceful and positive strategy of reform will centre on changing the middle institutions of civil society – which lie between the individual and the state. It is these institutions which exert the most agency in society, able to influence upwards to the government level, and downwards to the personal level.

Relational Thinking is neither abstract nor elitist but has many practical applications with the potential for engendering a mass movement for reform. The booklet ‘Practical Steps to Relational Responsibility’ commissioned by the Jubilee Centre in 2014 contains a more detailed strategy document, and presents a number of specific programmes to promote and realise this vision.

Already, Relational Thinking has been applied successfully to businesses, schools, prisons and healthcare providers in the UK, South Africa and Australia. A Relational Thinking Network has been established to link together organisations promoting and using this strategy for organisational change.

Europe in 2050

What if people embraced this alternative cultural narrative of right and just relationships on a large scale, and started to think, live and work differently at the individual and institutional level? What might Europe look like? Perhaps we would see:

  • People living more simply and avoiding debt wherever possible
  • Higher rates of marriage and family formation and a reduction in the divorce rate, leading to more children raised in families that are stable and rooted in a secure community
  • Extended families living in closer proximity, enabling relatives to provide more support and welfare for each other, and more church and community groups caring for the elderly and sick who don’t have family support
  • One day of the week (e.g. Sunday) as a shared day-off that gives everyone in society the time to invest in their close family relationships and local community
  • More businesses with a culture of relational responsibility which aim to deliver benefits to their stakeholder community, as well as profits to capital providers
  • More regional banks that lend to medium and small businesses, instead of being dependent on large banks that are ‘too big to fail’
  • Decision-making power over health and welfare moved away from centralized government toward local communities that can have more influence on the decisions that affect their lives

Given the state of the crisis in Europe the examples above might seem utopian and out of touch, but they are a hopeful picture of what the future can be.

We believe that God is not done with Europe and that the relational vision is a seed which has the potential to grow into a mass movement across the continent – to renew our society based on this deeply Christian, hope-filled narrative of right and just relationships.


This discussion paper has been written by the Jubilee Centre in Cambridge. Although we have tried to consider the broad and diverse European context, there will inevitably be some bias towards a UK perspective on some things, which we hope our continental colleagues will not hold against us. Our hope and desire is that this paper will serve to promote a European-wide conversation on how to build a more relational continent.

© Jubilee Centre, October 2014

[1] Christianity and Culture (1939)

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