How We Are Human


I accept as truth about myself (and not merely as an oddity of biblical Hebrew) that being human is a relational matter. In complete isolation, were such a horrible condition possible, I would still have being but not human being. I become human and keep becoming human through relationships and relatedness. I use the word “relationship” for the interpersonal, interactive condition in which we know each other personally and have mutual concerns and dealings which affect our decisions and actions, whether the relationship is one of physical intimacy, some degree of closeness in friendship, or any other type of ongoing, interpersonal relation. I use the word “relatedness” to cover a broader range of connection, biblically from neighbor to stranger and, according to Jesus, even enemy. So, while it would sound odd to say I have relationships with all people and even with the non-human creatures, I have relatedness of various kinds to all.

Biblically, sin is denial or betrayal of relationship and rejection of relatedness. All specific sins come from this negation which enables all the evils we do. So it is that Jesus summarizes truly human life in the two commands to relationship: love God wholeheartedly and love your neighbor as (you love) yourself. When pushed by a master of the law to set limits upon the range of people included by the word “neighbor,” Jesus pushes back by casting a despised enemy in the role of true neighbor (the Samaritan in Luke 10:26-37). Since the question, “Who is my neighbor?” really asks, “Who is NOT my neighbor; whom may I righteously exclude?” Jesus rejects the desire to exclude those other humans with whom we wish to deny our relatedness. In this popular but often interpretatively diluted parable, he pronounces God’s judgment upon our precious bigotries by which we “love” ourselves wrongly and build ourselves up in sin at some other person or group’s expense.

I have now used one from that strange word group: righteous, righteousness, and righteously. In what I have long considered a very helpful article in the Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Elizabeth Achtemeier expounds the relational nature of the whole concept of righteousness in the Hebrew scriptures (Christian Old Testament).

First, not all righteousness had a religious basis. . . . An act on the social plane is not righteous because it at the same time satisfies a demand of the law, though this of course often happened. It is righteous because it fulfills the demands of a social relationship. The relationship is always the determinative factor. (vol. 4, p. 82)

Secondly, we must observe that Israel’s relationship to Yahweh was not dependent on her righteousness. Israel’s righteousness consisted in the fulfillment of the demands of her relationship with Yahweh, but righteous or unrighteous, she still stood in relationship. The covenant relationship was prior to all law and all demands. Yahweh had chosen Israel. That was the basic fact of her existence. All else followed after. (vol. 4, p. 82)

Look again at the final sentence in each excerpt. “The relationship is always the determinative factor.” Always. “All else followed after.” All. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus declares of the two commandments to love God and neighbor, “From these two commandments, hang all the Torah and the Prophets” (the two parts of the Hebrew scriptures official at that time). The implications we draw from this view of human being and life as relational have no limits, no end. Christian faith is not, at its heart, a matter of correct doctrine or beliefs. It is not, at its core, a matter of feelings or experiences of Jesus or of the Spirit. Beliefs and feelings do matter, but when elevated too high in importance, they become idols that corrupt us and our faith. Yes, as Augustine insisted, faith seeks understanding, but faith itself is a relational matter. The truth of God confronts us in person. We can never possess that truth, master it intellectually or experientially. We cannot “have” Jesus Christ (or God or the Spirit) in any possessive sense.

Neither can we ever so master another human being. Those we love, even love most deeply and intimately, remain for us others who cannot be known fully, mastered, or possessed. They are not “ours” in any possessive, ownership sense.  They are not ours to preserve unchanged as though we could maintain the relationship just as we want it.

All else follows after.

When my mother had to move into a nearby nursing home, a physician previously unknown to either of us met us in the hallway. After I introduced my mother to him and we spoke very briefly, only moments, he turned to me and said of her as though she were not standing there with us, “Well, no mystery here.” I did not reply but thought, “You have no idea!”