Human life is relational. That brief statement of the biblical view of us the way we are as living beings, if taken seriously and pursued, can change the way we think and live our faith. Not only is human life relational, but a person’s identity is relational, also. By myself, completely by myself, I am no one. My very name relates me other people. My given name, Richard Edgar, comes from those who gave it to me and links me with them. My baptism with that name tells of my belonging to a community of faith that extends around the world and across generations. My surname, Sindall, is not my own in isolation but places me within a family.
Who are you? Not what but who? What you are may be answered chemically according to the makeup of your body (you are carbon based and mostly water). It may be answered biologically by your classification as an organism, animal, vertebrate, mammal, primate, homo sapiens. As an individual of that classification you are a specimen. The question of what you are may also be (and often is) answered by stating your job. I am a minister, retired. I am a retiree.
But who you are may be answered relationally, and I don’t know of another way of answering it because the word “who” asks, not about your substance, but about your person. I am my parents’ son, my sister’s brother, my wife’s husband, my sons’ father, my friends’ friend, etc. I am an uncle and a grand or great-uncle and now even a great grand-uncle. I have been a student in relation to my teachers and a teacher in relation to my students. Even if I have been someone’s enemy, that identity too is relational. All alone, I have no answer to the question of who I am.
And yet, I am also unique as are you. No one else has lived your life. Many have shared in your story which cannot be told without them, but your story remains distinctly your own.
It is not good for the human to be alone. (Genesis 2:18b)
In biblical thought, we are created to live in relationships and in relatedness to God’s other creatures, both the human and the non-human. I’m using the two terms, relationship and relatedness, to distinguish the intimately interpersonal from the rest because not all relations are the same in quality or intensity. I have a sister to whom I am, by birth and throughout life and beyond, her brother. I have also a sister-in-law who has become my sister through my love for her sister, my wife. Biblically, I am a brother to all other humans, especially but not only those who follow Jesus Christ. The woman running with her children from tear gas at our southern border is my sister, though we have never met, but so is the woman who calls her an invader and approves of having her children taken from her and locked up. Obviously, relatedness can be strained and can generate less than warm feelings. Our relatedness cannot be understood apart from God’s demand for justice. But I did not create the relatedness and so cannot dissolve it. I can deny it and reject my responsibilities for living within it on the terms of the One who did create it, but I cannot escape it.
Human life is relational. Personal identity is relational. Let’s take one further step. Human being is relational. It is not being in, of, and by itself but is always being-with. We’ll see what all of that might mean as we go forward.