It is common for Christians, and indeed people in general, to speak of humans as relational beings.
“Christianity is not a ‘religion’, it’s a ‘relationship’”, they might say. When it comes to issues of morality they might say that it’s not so much about the act itself but the impact on the people. Advice (and compromises?) take on a distinctly relational tone. This is often drawn out theologically by referring to the relations in God himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is love and so God is relational — first in himself and then with creation and the universe, and he is in relation with us. The argument then goes ‘because God is relational and we are made in his image, we are relational too’. Some even say that the imago dei is our relational nature.
To get into that theological movement would be to look at the doctrine of the social trinity and the ensuing anthropology. There is, however, a tendency to think of things in a relational way without thinking overly much about the concept of relation in itself.
Much of the modern relational language finds its home in the book ‘Ich and Du’ by Martin Buber in 1923 — or ‘I and Thou’ when it was translated in 1937.
Well worth a read, I and Thou is a book which reads almost more like poetry than theology or logic; a poetry which is intentionally using words to get behind words to express more than words, to express something of the actual reality which we experience.
Buber declares that humans speak two ‘primary words’.
To simplify by way of introduction, rather than explanation, the I-It is the relation that the individual has to that which they experience.
“Man travels over the surface of things and experiences them. He extracts knowledge about their constitution from them: he wins an experience from them.”
The ‘realm’ or ‘sphere’ or ‘category’ of It is things and information and the things and information which come with those things and information in order to understand the information about the things.
The realm of It is the realm of experience.
The I-Thou, though, is where the poetry and the ‘art’ of the words express the intangible
The I-Thou is not, as some say, that of you, the reader, and I, the writer, relating through the medium of words. Buber doesn’t mean each of us, ather he means us as a plural of I’s and God — The Thou.
We can be the It of another I’s experience — an object of general experience, something which others know about. But Buber is interested in the meaning which The Thou gives to I.
The I of the I-It kind, if that is all it is, has no present but only a past because all Its are objects and objects exist in time, time which has already happened.
Buber: “To be sure, many a man who is satisfied with the experience and use of the world of things has raised over and above himself a structure of ideas, in which he finds refuge and repose from the oncome of nothingness… But the mankind of mere It that is imagined, postulated and propagated by such a man has nothing in common with a living mankind where Thou may truly be spoken”.
To live in the present, to truly live and truly be present, the I must say Thou. Buber says all real living is meeting, and through that meeting with The Thou the I is ‘embodied’; “its body emerges from the flow of the spaceless, timeless present on the shore of existence”. More properly, to say I-Thou is to say Love. “Love does not cling to I in such a way as to have the Thou only for its “content”, its object; but love is between I and Thou”.
It is natural and right for this to all sound terribly confusing but for Buber this word I-Thou is a mutual relationship which gives meaning to the I which is a different meaning than that which is given to the I of the I-It.
We find the language of I-It much easier to hold onto. We can process information about objects. This information remains external to us but cannot define us intrinsically. To speak of the It, of the objective is to “snatch only at a fringe of real life”. What is required is the reality of the relation of love which we find ourselves in between us and God.
The language of I-It is one of separation, of distinguishing a thing from another and both from the I who is doing the distinguishing. The langauge of I-Thou is the langauge of unity, of meeting and connection. Freed from the trap of the past it is present. Thou comes and goes and each time “breaks in” with more power. The Thou defines the I, and the I finds that it is not an I without the Thou. To say Thou is to give yourself to the Thou, and the Thou gives himself to you and recognises you as a Thou too.
Again, we come up against the barrier of the ephemeral, elusive sense of the I-Thou langauge. This is because the world of It is set in the context of space and time, while the Thou is not set in the context of either of these. Buber puts it well when he says “without It man cannot live. But he who lives with It alone is not a man”.
There is more to humanity than the material and that ‘more’ is forever lost if we seek the concept of a soul or consciousness arising from within the material; that ‘more’ is discovered when the I encounters the Thou which redefines and expands the I of the I-It into the I of the I-Thou.
The language of I-It and I-Thou as the two primary words which humans speak to reality is certainly and entirely relational. However it is relational in a far deeper (both primally and metaphysically) than our ‘relational flavour’ of speaking.
I would suggest that the ‘relational’ language which is so commonly used is not actually relational at all, per se, but rather a superficial (and likely unconscious) way of permitting relativism and subjectivity to have a credible voice in our discussions. These things are not in themselves necessarily bad, but should be recognised and appreciated for what they are rather than as a misappropriation of a profound understanding of ‘relation’; which in itself could be freed to helpfully contribute insights and arguments on those same topics in ways that might possibly look quite different.