Saturday, April 13, 2013

Upholding the four relationships

One thing that the left gets right about Christianity is that it is a religion which encourages social commitment. If we are to love man for the sake of God then we can't retreat entirely into a purely personal, otherworldly focus which disdains a concern for human society.

And, more than this, we were created for relationships. There are four key relationships, the first one, uncontroversially for a religion, being with God.

The second relationship we were created for is with family. How do we know we were created for family?

We know this bodily, first, in the sense that men and women are brought to physical union and, second, in our perception of beauty and nobility in the physical form of the opposite sex. We know it bodily as well in the way that our physiques correlate to family roles: a woman's body being oriented to motherhood, a man's body having the strength to protect.

We know too that we were created for family in the way that our identity, our sense of who we are, finds its fulfilment in family roles, such as those of husband and wife and father and mother. Our moral natures perceive a higher good or value in these roles, which gives a significance to our sense of self and to the ends we work toward.

We know as well that we were created for family because through these relationships we experience forms of human communion and mutuality which bring us to particular and significant expressions of love. Flowing from this, we experience a loving pride in family, a protectiveness toward family, a willingness to make sacrifices for family, and an identity within a shared family history.

So in body, mind and spirit we were created for family relationships. For Christians, that we were made this way is understood as an aspect of divine governance.

The third, and most neglected, relationship we were made for is with ethnic kin. There are reasons it has been neglected within Christianity, which I'll discuss later. But this relationship is similar to that with family.

How do we know we were made for a relationship with ethnic kin? We know it through the sense of communion we have with the ethny we belong to, a communion that extends to generations past and present, and which creates a distinct form of human mutuality and a love of people and place. Flowing from this relationship comes a willingness to make sacrifices for a common good, a protectiveness toward the tradition we belong to, a pride in communal achievement and a core aspect of our personal identity.

A relationship with ethnic kin once again ties our identity, our sense of self, to a higher good within the larger tradition we belong to. It therefore gives additional meaning to the work we do in society, no matter how humble that work might be. Physically our instinct to procreate - to reproduce who we are - encourages our commitment not only to family but also to our ethny as a kind of extended family.

The fourth relationship we are made for is that with the stranger or the outsider. This one may not seem as intuitive, but Christianity rightly stresses that if we are to love man for the sake of God, then our relationships don't end with those we are most closely related to, but extend all the way to our fellow man, even to those set most apart from us. Therefore, we are to be hospitable to visitors and we are to extend charity not only to relations but to others who require it. That we are made for this is evident in our common humanity and in our natural feelings of sympathy for our fellow man.

Christianity ought to uphold all of these relationships and to find a balance that allows all of them to flourish. It once sought to do so, at least in part, in the "ordo caritatis". Today, however, the fourth relationship (with strangers) dominates to the point of sacrificing the third (with ethnic kin). There has been some rearguard defence of the second relationship (with family), but the mainstream churches have not been good at promoting the first relationship (with God).

Why has the relationship with ethnic kin been neglected? This relationship runs all the way through the Old Testament in the form of a Jewish "we". But in the New Testament there is an emphasis on the fourth relationship, that with strangers, which is understandable in a community where the kin relationships were already so strong. Furthermore, it was Paul's role to argue for Christianity to be extended to gentile communities and this led Paul to emphasise the supra-ethnic dimension of Christianity.

Apart from this, there has been a universalist focus in many modern churches. In these churches the emphasis is on a more abstract, universal love, one that is detached from any particular relationships. At times, such universalists suggest that it is more spiritual to ignore our created being. Here, for instance, is the complaint of a nineteenth century Quaker and feminist called Sarah Grimke:
permit me to offer for your consideration, some views relative to the social intercourse of the sexes. Nearly the whole of this intercourse is, in my apprehension, derogatory to man and woman, as moral and intellectual beings. We approach each other, and mingle with each other, under the constant pressure of a feeling that we are of different sexes; and, instead of regarding each other only in the light of immortal creatures, the mind is fettered by the idea which is early and industriously infused into it, that we must never forget the distinction between male and female.
But it is very difficult to square this kind of abstracted universalism with Christianity. Consider this from Exodus:
Honor your father and your mother: that your days may be long upon the land which the Lord your God gives you.

If particular relationships don't matter, then why would it be so important to honour our father and mother?

And there's this from Timothy:
But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God.
An abstract universalism is often adopted by those who don't wish to make commitments to the particular relationships they were created for. The historian Paul Johnson has written an entire book called Intellectuals which notes in great detail the tendency for intellectuals to preach universal love whilst mistreating or neglecting those around them.

Nor does an abstract universalism impart meaning very well to young people in the churches. What does a call to abstract universal love really mean to an 18-year-old young man? It makes it sound as if churches are about empty words, rather than connecting to the real inner life of individuals.

The ideal option is to have a Christianity which encourages the four relationships and which wisely orders the four to allow each its proper expression.


  1. Well, as an "18-year old young man" who found Christianity (properly) when I was around 14, a message of love never discouraged me from the faith. I guess it's the kind of "love" which churches preach that matters; it was the message that I was loved by Christ even after my sins that drew me into Christianity. If churches focussed on this message more than "love refugees", "love Palestinians", etc, they might find more more young people are attracted to the religion, like I was.

    This is a good example of what I'm talking about, it's a really powerful video illustrating Christ's love:

  2. I think that part of the problem with modern Christianity is that there's too much emphasis on the New Testament at the expense of the Old. The result has been that Christianity has become a victim religion.

    Modern churchmen seem to be embarrassed by the Old Testament.