Christian mysticism is frequently written and spoken about as a very solitary and private thing. In many ways, that is certainly the case, and understandably so. The shift into mysticism from the more common experiences and expressions of spiritual life is, for most of us, a shift toward introversion in our religious attitudes and practices. In this shift, we remove some of our attention and effort from conforming with externally imposed doctrines and behavioral norms, and place more attention and effort on plumbing the depths of Spirit immediately present within ourselves. The desire for belonging to a community, or for the acceptance and approval of some institutional authority, thus becomes a lower priority. We can experience both internal and external resistance to this change. With some of us, that resistance is encountered as a threat to answering the call to union with God, and so it sometimes happens that relationship itself is narrowly judged by us as a distraction. All of this plays into the stereotype of mystic as hermit. Yet the messages of Jesus consistently emphasize relationship as central to our spiritual lives. Relationship with God and relationships with our fellow human beings are not only presented as equally important but as inseparably intertwined. The centrality of this theme suggests there could be much to gain in thinking more about relationship itself. Therefore, in this post we will begin with the most abstract examination of relationship, and from there consider various implications for the significance of relationship.
The Ubiquity of Relationship
An interesting thing about relationship is that it is always present. Nothing can exist in any way and not be in relationship, regardless of whether we are speaking of a material object or something as ethereal as a thought. In fact, it is impossible to conceive of anything apart from relationship. Even the effort to imagine or describe something alone, in isolation from other objects, nonetheless involves the perception of its own different characteristics, each of which is in relationship with the others through their participation in the whole. In science, relationships are typically expressed in mathematics, which is nothing other than a system of describing and exploring relationship. While this pursuit can be, as with quantum physics, very far removed from ordinary experiences of relationship in most people’s lives, we need only turn to the fields of accounting, geometry, meteorology, and psychological testing to see how mathematics helps us understand many common forms of relationship. (Even the word under-stand shouts of relationship!) Likewise, all art is an exploration of and participation in relationship. Just these few examples from both science and art reveal that we cannot conceive of being in any way apart from relationship, and that the meaning we find in or give to being itself is likewise inseparable from relationship. Being and meaning are so thoroughly dependent upon relationship that it would not be too much of a stretch to conclude that they are functions of relationship, that they are only able to emerge within relationship itself.
It should be noted that our usual way of thinking about relationship is being turned upon its head. The typical thought process assumes that relationship emerges from and between the being of different things. In other words, we usually think of an object or idea as something relatively static and self-existent, and our perception of relationship only emerges as we simultaneously consider that thing and something else. Relationship is thus treated as a matter of how things that are assumed to be separate are judged to be different or alike, their locations relevant to each other, what effects they may have upon each other, and so forth. Now, however, we are considering that there are no things, no objects or ideas, without there first being relationship. The awareness of a thing, even of oneself, is thus the perception of a constellation of relationships that we perceive as sufficiently unique to distinguish it from other constellations. In other words, “thing-ness” is nothing other than the constellation of relationships. Relationship is the basis of existence itself.
Considering this possibility may be so radically different that it seems absurd, and so I invite you to try it merely as a thought experiment. Try to set aside your usual habits of thinking and see what happens if you take it as a given that relationship is most fundamental, that it is that from which all emerges, that in which each thing has its being and thus its meaning. In the language of various philosophies, we are now attempting to work with the possibility that relationship is the ground of being. For a Christian, this means we are trying to think of God as Relationship itself, using “Relationship” in the same way we might use Truth, Mind, Perfection, Nothing, All, Spirit, Father, or another capitalized term to signify God in some particularly meaningful way. So, to reiterate, for the present purposes we are speaking of God as the Supreme Relationship.
A Theology of Relationship
If we take Relationship as the ground of being, and thus being as a function of Relationship, then Relationship is more than being and not simply identical with it. If this is so, then both being and non-being are subsumed by Relationship; they are states within the whole all-encompassing scope of the Supreme Relationship. But what do we mean by these terms, “being” and “non-being?” We may take the concept of being, even in this unusual context, as reasonably apparent and even self-evident. To be is to exist in some manner; being is “is-ness.” Yet we have just encountered the perspective that we cannot conceive of a particular being, a thing that is, without recognizing its distinctness as a constellation of relationships. Non-being is thus a state in which there are no constellations of relationships to distinguish from each other. There are two ways we can account for such a state – one is absolute chaos and the other is absolute order. In absolute chaos, the relational principle of change is so completely dominant that nothing, no thing, can ever emerge from its “anarchy” to manifest as something distinct from the chaos. In absolute order, the relational principle of stasis is so completely dominant that nothing can ever emerge from its “tyranny.” Absolute chaos and absolute order are thus extreme conditions of relationship we conceptualize as opposites, which are, nonetheless, identical in their non-being-ness. Within the whole of Relationship itself, we thus have a trinity of fundamental relationship states that are different yet inseparable from each other – non-being as absolute chaos, non-being as absolute order, and being.
In this model, Relationship begets Creation (the totality of being represented in the graphic by white and all tints of red and blue), through the interaction of chaos and order. One analogy that readily lends itself for understanding these states in Relationship is a magnetic field or electric current. Just as magnetism or electricity arises between positive and negative polarities, all the possibilities of being are understood as arising in the tension between, and/or the co-mingling of, absolute order and absolute chaos.
We should note that unlike some theological models, this one does not dispense with the possibility for a personal relationship with God, it does not deny God’s personhood, and it does not minimize the significance of experiencing a spiritual or mystical presence. All of these things are instead embraced as actual forms of relationship that can manifest in the field of being, and thus between the Supreme Relationship and us.
Every theological model has practical implications. In other words, the way we think about God has effects, both obvious and subtle, on how we think and feel and on what we do. Consider, for example, all the possible effects of thinking about God in exclusively masculine or feminine terms, or as a jealous parent or temperamental judge. Consider the ramifications of thinking about God in deistic terms, as a creative intelligence that crafted the cosmos and then retreated from the scene. Thinking of God as an impersonal force also shapes us in its own ways. It’s important to consider these things because it can help us more fully understand ourselves and why we and others think and act in certain ways. Furthermore, it can challenge us to ponder whether or not the way we think about God really serves the whole truth of our being as well as it might. For example, we might say that we believe there is nothing more important than peace, but if we conceive of God primarily as a temperamental judge, then it’s likely that many of our feelings and actions will not be in harmony with the principle of peace. In effect, this self-contradiction puts us at odds with ourselves, and our presence in the world and effect on others will reflect it.
The following paragraphs provide starting places for working with a few specific implications of thinking about God as Relationship.
An Implicate Ethic in Creation
One of the implications of this model is that the more thoroughly chaos and order are integrated, then the more optimal are the possibilities for being. Movement from the middle toward chaos is a movement away from the harmonizing, stabilizing, sustaining effects of order. Therefore, being increasingly dissolves into anarchy approaching the non-being of absolute chaos. Movement from the middle toward order is movement away from the liberating, diversifying, renovating effects of chaos. Therefore, being increasingly solidifies into tyranny approaching the non-being of absolute order. So it is that this model resonates very well with the ancient Greek doctrine of the Golden Mean, the Middle Way of Buddhism, the Pillar of Equilibrium on the Kabbalistic Tree of Life, and the Tao. The ethics of these doctrines typically highlight virtues such as moderation, temperance, integrity, and equanimity, while also not denying the freedom and possible value of moving toward an extreme from time to time. There are limitless ways this ethic might actually be put into practice in our everyday lives, from such macro issues as international politics to such micro issues as what one does for dinner tonight.
Relationships as Spiritual Experiences
Ponder for a moment what it means to regard Relationship itself as utterly Divine. It implies that all forms of relationship are therefore divine in some particular way, which further implies that all relationships are, each in their own way, a direct though limited encounter with God. And beyond this, since everything is, in some way, in relationship with everything else, then we are constantly encountering God in an ongoing myriad of different expressions. Even further, if we accept the idea that a thing is actually a constellation of relationships, and has no existence otherwise, then all things are inherently divine. There is nothing that is not divine, including ourselves, and every relationship is interconnected with all others and thus part of the whole Relationship that is God, the Supreme Relationship inclusive of all being and non-being. Relationship is unity in multiplicity and multiplicity in unity. We therefore have the possibility of realizing every relationship as not only spiritual in nature, but also potentially mystical in significance. This perspective makes it possible for mysticism to be more than an introverted pursuit; it is freed from the realm of private solitary practice and opened up as a whole way of life.
As mystics often write and speak about the centrality of Love, the unity of Love, the transcendence and immanence of Love, of God as Love, it isn’t unusual for people to question what that really means. Such questions are significant. To think of Love as something not limited by duality, as something that, in the broadest scope, has no opposite such as hate, or fear, or apathy, can leave us empty of anything but the vaguest intuition about Love. That befuddlement is fitting because it reveals we are plumbing the depths of the concept of Love all the way down into the mystery of the ineffableness of God. It is pushing the finiteness of a word to its breaking point in an effort to make it an emblem for the Infinite. In classic theological language, it is following the Via Positiva all the way to the conceptual chasm where one can only go further by, ironically, resting in the Via Negativa. Even so, perhaps there is some value in considering the possibility that the meanings of Love and Relationship merge at this point, with Love as relationship realized in wholeness, and Relationship as love realized in all things.
In closing, I ask you to consider what it might mean to actually live your life from this perspective that Relationship is the Ground of Being, that God is the Supreme Relationship in which all other relationships live and move and have their being. What effects might it have on your thoughts, feelings, and actions? How could it impact your understanding of Christianity and your identity and self-expression as a Christian? How might it affect your attitudes toward other religions, toward the non-religious, or on political and social issues? What about your behavior as a citizen, your attitudes about sexuality, your presence among co-workers, family, friends, and so on?