What kind of relationship with God?

We are called not only to know God, but also to participate in the interior life of God. That interior life is defined primarily as a communion of persons. What characterizes this communion?

November 28, 2020 Dr. Randall B. Smith EssayFeatures 0Print

Detail from the Sistine Chapel Ceiling: “Creation of Adam” (1510) by Michelangelo [WikiArt.org]

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part essay. Read Part One here.

One sometimes hears preachers exhort their congregations to enter into a “relationship” with God. I have no desire to diminish the importance of this advice, because it is important, but as we saw in yesterday’s article, there are many different types of “relationship.” So we might ask, “What kind of relationship with God can we have?” He is God, after all, and we are simply creatures. Many ancient people believed in gods, but their relationship to them was not always thought to be pleasant or especially beneficial. One tried most often simply to placate them so as to avoid trouble.

Even with the more beneficent “Christian” God, we should recognize that He is omniscient and omnipotent, the Source of All Being, and we are … well, something much less. The difference between our abilities and God’s makes the difference between us and a slug seem insignificant by comparison. How many slugs have you befriended?

We exist, and He exists. But He exists as the Source of All Existence. We know things, and He knows things. But He is Truth Itself. We love, and He loves. But he is the Source of All Goodness and Love. There is a radical disjunction between God and us. And yet Scripture tells us that we have been made “in the image and likeness of God.” We are obviously not “like Him” in that we know all things and love all things perfectly. And we’re not always exactly “friends” with God in the sense of an equal give-and-take. He gives, and we take. He loves, and we repay Him with crucifixion. Our “relationship” with God is not like our relationship with anything else in the universe — not like our relationship with the birds and trees, not like our relationship with our dog, not even like our relationship with our best friends — so how can we begin to understand it?

There has been a long tradition of thinkers throughout human history — Christian and non-Christian, religious and non-religious — who have affirmed that there is yet another important dimension of human relationality. They propose that human beings are distinguished by their ability to be related not only to thing in the world, but also to the world as a whole. It is clear enough that persons can understand particular things, even themselves, within the context of the complex unity of larger wholes: this cog is a part of this larger machine; this light bulb is connected to a series of wires that brings power to the house and lights this light. So too persons are connected in various ways to this family, this neighborhood, this university, this company, this group of veterans wounded in Vietnam, this nation. What is controversial to some is the notion that we humans are related in a similarly meaningful way to the whole order of reality.

The claim has been made in different ways and taken different formulations across history and in various culture. Some of the claims are expressed in metaphysical language: human beings can know not merely beings, but Being; we know not merely things, but the ultimate cause of things and the ultimate order that governs the whole; we want to know not only how the world works, but why we and it exists at all. Some of the claims are expressed in more existential and/or theological language: human beings have a “religious sense”; we seek the ultimate “meaning” of things and of history; we seek to know and love God. But whichever formulation the claims takes, it is commonly understood that seeking this ultimate cause or source of meaning is taken to be essential to our distinctively human mode of flourishing.

In addition to our corporeal, sensual, rational, and emotional relation to the world, we might describe this last “sense of the whole” as a “spiritual” relation to the world. As John Paul II has written:

Through reason, all existence is given to humankind in truth: as truth. Rationality is not just the ability to form (reproduce) objective in a sensitive way. It is the capacity, and also the task, of “communing” with them in truth. The relationship with the whole in truth and through truth constitutes an essential characteristic of spirituality, in which the sensory dimension of knowledge is overcome absolutely. While the senses capture the material objects in a perceptive (and also, indirectly, imaginative) way in their singularity, the intellect-reason seeks the whole and the totality. Therefore it must be said that in the intellect-reason the human being has been given all that exists (in whatever form): all that is created, the universe, and even God.

The line of questioning we are pursuing would prompt us to ask how we might be related to the whole and how it is related to us. We come to understand the ways in which signs and things point beyond themselves and signify other things — smoke signifies fire, smiles signify happiness, and signs of a certain shape mean “stop” — and then we ponder whether there is a significance to the whole of reality. Does the whole universe, in addition to just “being there,” point beyond itself in some way: say, for example, the way a finger points to the person you’re looking for? Is it a sign the way a bouquet of flowers can be a sign of love? Can the universe be both known and loved, the way Person A is not only known by Person B (“there is a person sitting next to me; oh look, it’s Sally”) but also loved by Person B (“the person next to me is my beautiful, beloved wife)? As Pope John Paul II notes, these questions have been at the heart of, and “served as the rational foundation of,” every religion.

It is worth noting, if only in passing, how very different this notion of what lies at the heart of “religion” is from the reductivist accounts given by modern “masters of suspicion” who reduced this common human “religious” impulse to a search for some sort of cosmic father figure to take the place of one’s own mortal father; or who theorized that religion was the product of terrified pre-scientific peoples who posited the existence of “gods” behind fundamental forces like lightning, the wind, storms, and fate. How very different it is to affirm a universal search for meaning and to say with Jewish author Viktor Frankl that “It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future—sub specie aeternitatis [under the aspect of or in the context of eternity], and that “this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence, although he sometimes has to force his mind to the task” — Frankl, who also wrote of his experience of suffering in Auschwitz: “In a last violent protest against the hopelessness of imminent death, I sensed my spirit piercing through the enveloping gloom. I felt it transcend that hopeless, meaningless world, and from somewhere I heard a victorious ‘Yes’ in answer to my question of the existence of an ultimate purpose.”

The difference between the modern reductivist accounts of religion and the one suggested by Pope John II is that the modern reductivist accounts do away with religion. Religion is something to be discarded and supplanted by whatever theory is being proposed: Marxism by Marx, Freudianism by Freud, Will to Power by Nietzsche, Positivism by Comte. On John Paul II’s account, religion is something that can develop and find greater clarity. We needn’t devalue or discard the religious yearnings of our pre-Christian forebears or our non-Christian religious brethren. Christians can say, with John Paul II, that “every religion is ‘intentionally’ open to the Truth that is God, although this truth finds in different (historical) religions an expression that is inadequate and at times even wrong.” Christians can offer an honorable critique of other religions without being dismissive of them and without proposing that they represent a kind of childishness in others that we, in our (presumed) advanced state of greater wisdom and sophistication, have surpassed. Because, in fact, it is on the Christian view not human genius that has made the difference; it is, rather, God’s revelation of Himself in and through history and His Word. “In order for God to be known in truth,” says Pope John Paul, he must let himself be known by human reason.”

It is well known that Jewish-Christian revelation has certainly made its mark on the metaphysical realm by advancing our understanding of Being and essence. Reflection on the Trinity has also given us a greater appreciation of what it means to be a “person.” What about “relationality”?

The first thing it tells us is that the common human belief that we are somehow related to and connected with the whole is not merely some psychic delusion or projection of wish-fulfillment. This sense of connectedness is a foretaste of something real. The Source of our Being is not merely an impersonal Fundamental Force; it is conscious and aware; it is “personal.” This “Person” knows us better than we know ourselves and has created us in love and continues to care for us. Thus not only are we related to the universe in knowledge and love, quite startlingly, the universe at its very Source is related to us in knowledge and love. Were one to grant the truth of this notion, it would transform our every relationship, both to the world and to other persons.

One way of describing the difference, made famous by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, would be to say that Person A’s relationship with the chair is “I-it” whereas her relationship with Person B is (or should be) “I-thou.” Other people should be treated as persons and not merely as things, the way I treat my coffee cup or my phone. Buber argued that these human “I-Thou” relationships were grounded in God’s “I-thou” relationship with His people.

One finds modern thinkers who like Buber’s “I-thou” terminology when it comes to human relationships, but find it less convincing when it comes to our relationship with “God” or with whatever we posit as the ultimate source of the universe. And yet we might wonder whether there is a firm basis left for insisting on treating persons as “I-thou” rather than “I-it” if the animating force of the universe itself is nothing but an “it.” If radical materialism is true, and everything in the universe is essentially nothing more than various arrangements of atoms, then on what basis would we be able to meaningfully distinguish in that elevator between the potted plant, the dog, and another person. All three are merely epiphenomena created by the interaction of those atoms with the peculiar order-imparting capacities of my brain. They could only be “something more” if there were “something more” in the universe. The problem for such a radical reductivist view is that there clearly is “something more” in the universe: me! I know and can distinguish between the plant, the dog, and a fellow human being with consciousness and awareness akin to my own. The question then becomes what the source of that special power of relationality in me could be, since I clearly did not create it in myself. If I am a person related to other persons, how did I (and they) become a person and not merely a thing?

One answer, shared by Christians and other theists throughout the ages, is that our relationship with the very heart, the very core of the universal order is also not merely “I-it.” We do not find at the ultimate source of things merely impersonal “laws” or “forces” that we come to know and perhaps control. We find a Person. Not merely a what, but a Who. The relationship is mutual. Indeed, that relationship is the Source of the possibility of all our distinctively human, “personal” relationships. We are persons because in the very source of all things there is “personhood.” We would not possess our distinctive relatedness to the world unless it had its source not only in the world (for we would still have the question how it would have arisen there), but at the origin of the world.

We should not let our long acquaintance with Christian revelation obscure from us how radical a claim it is to say that the Creator’s relationship with these particular beings He has created — human beings — is “I-thou” rather than “I-it.” I can love the beauty of the heavens and the earth the way I love the beauty of a painting or a bird — I love them, but they don’t love me back. So too we don’t often now presume that we have a personal relationship with the Source of All Things. We tend to assume that it is an impersonal force — as unconscious and unaware of me as the electromagnetic force is unaware of the fact that I just turned on the lamp on the side table. The carpenter may love the table he has made, but it doesn’t love him back. It’s just not that kind of relationship.

Although my relation to God is, first, the relation of creature to Creator, to that which imparted to me my existence, there is more. He loves us. But even more startlingly, He created us to have a personal relationship of love with Him and with each other. It is difficult to know which claim is more shocking: that the Source of the Being of All That Is is a conscious, aware Person. Or the claim that He made us not merely to use, not merely to love as the carpenter loves and uses the table, but to love as a man loves his wife or as a parent loves his or her child. That is a very different kind of relationship, and it is precisely this claim that seems so absurd to many modern people. “Things” don’t love you back, and for many people, the universe has become just another “thing.”

In an odd reversal, rather than our being the product of the universe, it in certain ways has become in human consciousness the product of us. It has whatever meaning it has by virtue of whatever meaning we create for it. Whoever or whatever made the clock, it is our clock now, and we show it is “ours” by tinkering with it and manipulating it to do the things we want. If we had a different relationship with the clock — if, for example, it was a gift from a friend or from a parent who entrusted it to our care — then this kind of relationship might preclude my using it merely as raw material, as though it were mere “stuff” that I happened to find lying around. One has a different relationship with a necklace one finds in someone’s garbage than one does with a necklace loaned to you by a good friend, even if the loaned necklace has no greater monetary value than the other. Those who want to use the world as raw material are often frustrated to find that others think it ought to be respected as a gift and treated in accord with the wishes of the Giver of the gift. To love creation as a gift means respecting the wishes of the Giver of the gift. To claim, “It is mine now, and I will do with it as I like; I can break it apart and treat it as trash or I can use it to stab someone in the eye” is to break the relationship the gift was given to establish.

But what does it mean to have a loving, “personal” relationship with God? As we have seen, that relationship is a relationship of persons, not merely the relationship between a maker and a thing made. But as we have also seen, there are various kinds of human relationship. Of what sort is our relationship with our Creator? Divine revelation suggests to us that this relationship is akin to that of two spouses or a parent to a child. That is helpful for a start, but is still not enough, since we have all had experience of abusive spouses and overly domineering fathers and mothers. Most took themselves to be “gods” of the family, dominating others and demanding obedience to their will. But this is not the kind of parent or “god” God reveals Himself to be.

What, then, is the nature of God’s relationship with His people? As Martin Buber claims, it is not merely “I-it,” it is “I-thou.” This is certainly true. But there is more. God’s love is revealed in Christ to be the love of self-sacrifice. This love — the love of persons — is based on a total gift of self. It is a willingness to sacrifice for others.

We are called not only to know God, but also to participate in the interior life of God. That interior life is defined primarily as a communion of persons. What characterizes this communion? Love as a total gift of self.

The Triune God challenges us because it proposes as a response to the classic problem of the “one” and the “many” the paradigm of a perfect unity in diversity and a perfect diversity in unity. The diversity of persons does not diminish their unity, nor does their unity diminish their distinctness and the differences between the persons. This is to be the model for us in our relationships, whatever they are.

We recently celebrated the Feast of the Trinity. Too often, preachers shrug their shoulders as though this was a problem in mathematics: how can something be both “one” and “three.” It is not difficult to imagine something being “one” in one sense and “many” in another. C. S. Lewis gives the example of a cube. It is six independent squares that are one. No, the real challenge posed to us by the Trinity is how to achieve this unity that preserves difference. The real challenge posed to us by the self-giving communion of the Trinity extended to us in the sacrifice of the Son is how we can “die to self” rather than live solely in and for ourselves. This is an existential challenge, not a math problem.

The challenge is the very counter-intuitive claim, stated most succinctly in that passage from Gaudium et Spes 24 that Pope John Paul II quoted repeatedly throughout his pontificate to support the claim that, if you give yourself to others, you don’t have less, you become more.

Indeed, the Lord Jesus, when He prayed to the Father, “that all may be one. . . as we are one” (John 17:21-22) opened up vistas closed to human reason, for He implied a certain likeness between the union of the divine Persons, and the unity of God’s sons in truth and charity. This likeness reveals that man, who is the only creature on earth which God willed for itself, cannot fully find himself except through a sincere gift of himself.

The doctrine of the Triune God challenges us to think of every relationship differently — our relationship to the world, to others, and to ourselves. And it for this reason, that we should add the category of “relation” to the concepts we explore in metaphysics. Because in a world in which reductivism — reducing complex wholes into discrete parts — and atomistic individualism are the primary modes of approaching reality, we need to think more seriously and at length about the various ways things are related to one another, as well as the ways in which we are related to them and to each other. We should see such an inquiry as a proper response to John Paul II’s call in Fides et Ratio for philosophy to “recover its sapiential dimension” and for a philosophy “of genuinely metaphysical range” — requirements, says the Pope, “for knowing the moral good, which has its ultimate foundation in the Supreme Good, God himself” (cf. Fides et Ratio, 81-84).

So the next time someone asks you whether you are “in a relationship” or whether you “have a relationship with God” — questions both of which can cause some embarrassment — you can immediately, without embarrassment, answer: “Of course! That goes without saying. The question you should be asking is what kind of relationship?”

About Dr. Randall B. Smith 40 ArticlesDr. Randall B. Smith is a full professor of Theology at a Catholic, liberal arts university. His book Reading the Sermons of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide is available from Emmaus Press. And his next book, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary will be available from Cambridge University Press in the fall.

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I am an Informed and fully practicing Roman Catholic

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