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Theologies of Relationality: A Response to Economic and Political Binary Choices

The following paper was presented at the Seventh Annual Telos Conference, held on February 15–17, 2013, in New York City.

I’d like to begin with the idea that religion is not only useful for social service provision and various charities but that it has ideas that might be valuable, among them theologies of relationality. These are theologies that take the actions of relationship—not positions like parent/child, sovereign/subject, etc. but verbs—as their core. They, I’ll argue, offer a conceptual framework for addressing a long-running problem at least in the modern developed world. That problem is the ostensible binary choice between situatedness and separability and the unhappy results when we slip too far to one side or the other. Theologies of relationality may offer even non-believers a notion of the kinds of ideas needed to keep us from this self-induced harm.

A few definitions: situatedness is associated with acculturation by and into communities, tradition, obligation to the group, and writers like Burke in the 18th century and MacIntyre and Taylor in the 20th. Separability is associated with individualism, mobility, negative liberty, right- based legal systems, and writers like Locke in the 17th century and Rawls in the 20th.

Yet, even among these supposed champions of one side or the other, a binary choice is neither idealized nor proposed for the good reason that when we get an excess of one or the other, we get the worst of our heritage: either too much situatedness from above (oppression, totalitarianism) or too much situatedness from the crowd (unforgiving pressures to conformity). Or we get too much separability, abandonment, anomie, and selfishness—what we have a bit too much of today. The ills of our neo-liberal economies and cultures of self-absorption are well-documented—for instance, in Greg Smith’s New York Times article “Why I Left Goldman Sachs,” in which he details the corporate culture of me-first and me-only, and in a raft of economic-political critiques by G. W. Bush’s speechwriter David Frum, Mike Lofgren, Republican congressional staffer for 28 years, D. R. Tucker and Mike Stafford, both prominent Republicans, among others who note that untempered separability yields an unconcern for others and for the common infrastructure. It yields also a reliance on the individual and market for things that they cannot alone do. And it breeds a suspicion of government that hobbles our ability to see where government or government/civil society cooperation—a well-developed subsidiarity—might meet societal needs.

Because excessive situatedness or separability leads to unhappy effects, there is a strong motive to preserve the messy middle—the simultaneous presence or a meld of both—which is what the classic modern thinkers advised. A few examples. Locke, in spite of his individualist contractarianism, holds that traditional, Western virtues are necessary to live under the conditions of liberty, among them religious toleration, liberality, justice, courage, civility, industry, and truthfulness, which must be nurtured by societal institutions; should the father die, the state must step in. Adam Smith did not think that persons alone could regulate themselves but rather that one is guided to act lawfully and morally in communities, when one knows others are watching. Kant, for all his search for a universal, reasoned morality independent of convention, nonetheless held that “practical anthropology” (the conventional forms of social, political, and legal systems) is needed to foster in people the ability to autonomously choose moral law. He requires not only critical reflection but also the duty to promote the happiness of others. John Stuart Mill held that man’s ability to live in liberty relies on virtues forged by robust engagement in local government, voluntary associations with the public good as their mandate. But let’s skip to Rawls, whose scheme for setting up society—his “original position” and “veil of ignorance”—does not require that one be without tradition or values. Rawls expects that people will draw on their ideas of justice and fairness, garnered from their traditions. Moreover, his own conditions for just societies are hardly valueless. They require substantial inalienable rights and equality of opportunity (separability) and his economic “difference principle” mandates significant advantage for society’s less well off (situatedness).

In short, these separability thinkers in fact advanced a mix—as did thinkers associated with situatedness. Burke held that societies should rely on tradition and past experience as they form character, expectations, and judgment, and that traditional, gentlemanly virtue knits society together through long-standing bonds. But he—a commoner—did not hesitate to censure the lords who failed to practice it. Here is separability. Burke held that virtue and talent can be found among men of ordinary rank, who may criticize their “betters.” Moreover, he understood that, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” A situatedness/separability mix continued in Romanticism, which, in pointing up the formative influence of community, land, culture and language, did not abandon separability. As the Romantics championed each people’s language and culture (situatedness), each group and then subgroup and sub-sub-group, they ended in advancing the individual life, especially the artist and non-conformist (separability). The structural sociologists and anthropologists and their heirs in deconstruction—for all their investigation of mankind’s situatedness in societal structures, discourses, etc.—nonetheless prize the mobility of residence, job, faith, politics, the separability rights we would be outraged to live without. Alasdair MacIntyre, while emphasizing the “embedded self,” also insists that individuals come to their own moral standards, which does not require accepting “the moral limitations of the particularity of those forms of community.” Indeed, Macintyre is counting on separability from the present separability trend to take us back to situatedness. Charles Taylor holds that each person becomes what she is by situatedness in community, which she in turn must nourish. But he is also concerned that if she doesn’t, the West will lose its prized aspect, “freedom and individual diversity,” or in a word, separability.

These writers proposed various separability/situatedness melds because when we lose it, profound problems arise. Theologies of relationality offer a framework for the mix in their discussion of trinity, Eucharist, resurrection, but in this short time, I’ll focus on the Judeo-Christian concept of covenant.

There are at least two modes of covenant in Judaic thinking, the contractual—known as the law of Moses—being the narrower mode, the covenantal, the over-arching frame characterized by a fluid open-endedness, gift-giving for the sake of the bond (not for the items exchanged), mutual respect, and the excess of love—noted as the testimony of Moses. It may include contractual elements, in the way that the covenantal bond between parents and children might: you can’t go out to play until you clean up your room. But these are an aspect of a broader relationship, which is a Moebius strip. By this I mean, you can’t get covenantal relations among men until they have covenant with God. But you also can’t get relationship with God without covenantal relations among men because covenantal relations among men is the occasion for the bond with God. The medieval master of Biblical commentary, Rashi, reads in Isaiah, “I cannot be God unless you are my witness,” and Rashi glosses, “I am the God who will be whenever you bear witness to love and justice in the world.” This entwined loop—man/God and man/man—affects not only these relationships but the cosmos. Covenant is the way the world goes. When we don’t do our part, we gum up not only our personal relationships but the workings of the world.

Thus we are obliged to act with an ethics that reflects not a list of statutes but the double covenant. This idea is found in the Bible: Deuteronomy 15:7–10, for instance, asks that we aid the poor not only according to law—which would be a sin—but “Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart.” And it is found in rabbinic sources (from the first century onwards and the basis for Judaic practice until the present) where laws are often re-interpreted to arrive at practices that accord with a rabbi’s sense of ethics and justice. Well-known examples include the re-working of capital punishment, allowed by the Bible, so that the requirements for invoking it became so high that it could never in practice be carried out.

One telling piece of evidence of the covenantal bond is that when terms are broken, the deal is never off as it would be in a contract. Mankind repeatedly breaches both the bond with God and with other people, but God never breaks the covenant—even at the golden calf. As with a parent or lover, anger doesn’t cancel the relationship. That the bond is non-revocable is seen in its foundational moment between God and Abraham, “I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and . . . for the generations to come” (Genesis 17:7). Interestingly, most of the breaches that make God despair pertain not to the laws of God-worship—other than basic idolatry—but to abuses among people. “To do what is right and just [‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ in Hebraic versions of the Bible] is more acceptable to the Lord than [animal] sacrifice” (Proverbs 21:3).

This Möbius-strip covenant—where love among men is constituent of loving God—is developed in the Christian principles of love/service and justification, where being right or justified with others is constituent of being justified with God. Richard Kearney explains, echoing the medieval Rashi, God is “a capacitating God who is capable of all things cannot actually be or become incarnate until we say yes.” As Jesus explained in his description of the Last Judgment: Those who are justified with God are those who loved man—who “when I was hungry and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me drink . . .” (Matthew 25:34–36). Yet it is not only aiding Jesus while he was on earth that constitutes loving God but rather aiding all in need, for Jesus continues, “whenever they did it to the least of these brothers and sisters, they did it to me” (Matthew 25:40). In a syllogism of sorts: if, to love God, we are to be to others as God is to us, then we must serve others as Jesus served.

This sort of thinking distinguishes itself from traditions that separate conduct among men from salvation/justification—a split that usually locates the man/man emphasis in Jesus and the salvific emphasis in Paul. In theologies of relationality, these are twined. Indeed, in Paul, the unity of the God-of-salvation and the God-of-agapic-giving is made a structural aspect of Christianity. While justification may rest on faith (Romans 3:28), salvation rests on love of others. I Corinthians 13: 2-3 notes, “if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned [in martyrdom], but have not love, I gain nothing.” In discussing the three key aspects of the Christian, it is love that Paul prioritizes: “These three abide, faith, hope, love; but the greatest of these is love” (I Cor. 13:13).

There is of course much more to be said about living covenantally and designing institutions and creating practices that are themselves covenantal—where not letting anyone fall through the cracks is a necessary piece of any policy or structure we develop. In describing theologies of relationality, I am not suggesting that they are the sole framework that provides for a situatedness/separability meld but that it is sturdy and enduring because it relies on a transcendent that can’t be tweaked to suit our temptations. This transcendent prizes the individual, who is un-sacrifice-able for the group and thus holds inalienable, human rights. Yet precisely because of the value of every individual, each is seen as also situated in community and obligated to it—but to communities that can change and where people can change communities (opt in, opt out). Personalism and corporatism are not in conflict but inter-dependent. And because this is un-tweakable, we must figure out how to live this through.

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