Humans as Relational and Communal Beings

This is the 22nd blog in this series which began with the blog Being and Becoming Human. The previous blog is Humans: Flesh and Body (IV).  In the next few blogs we will explore another dimension of being human: God created us to as beings who have relationships with God, with one another and with all of the rest of the created order.  Some Orthodox authors also note that if we humans are in the image and likeness of God, then we are in the image and likeness of the Holy Trinity – and somehow humanity is to reflect the perfect love of the Three Persons of the Trinity.   We are designed to live communally with others; in Genesis 2:18, God says, “it is not good that man to be alone.”  This is the first time in Genesis that God sees something in creation that is not good. [And stands in stark contrast to Genesis 1 in which all creation was good in God’s eyes].   So in Genesis 2 God creates more than one human being, with all others being decedents of the first human.   So from the beginning, after the creation of ‘Adam’,  all other humans are related to the first human and all are to live in relationship with all others.   Additionally, each human is created to be the relational mediator between the Holy Trinity and the rest of the created world.  No human is an island unto himself or herself but all are organically and genetically related.  The Christian Apologist Lactantius (d. ca. 325AD) argues (living within the context of the rigid Roman culture of social stratification) that ultimately all humans, whatever their social ranking are to be considered precisely as humans.

“If we have all sprung from one man whom God made, then surely we are relatives, and for this reason it must be considered the greatest crime to hate a man or to do him harm. “ (in A Patristic Treasury: Early Church Wisdom for Today, Kindle Loc. 2345-46)

The hierarchical nature of society and even the tendency for males to dominate females was generally by the Fathers seen not as God’s original intention but all a result of human sin which destroyed the natural order God created.    In Genesis 1:27, we read:  “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”   Fr. Andrew Louth, Orthodox theologian, comments:

“However, this verse from Genesis (1:27) does suggest that we are not to consider human beings as individuals, but as bound together within the unity of humanity, a unity that is embodied in the communities to which we belong. The doctrine of the image of God embraces this aspect of what it is to be human, too, for if being in the image means that we have an affinity with God, that entails, too, that we have an affinity with one another, on the basis of which we find some kind of togetherness. And if the Church is the community embracing those who, in Christ, have set out on the path to the restoration of fallen humanity, then the community of the Church should give us some sense of what a true human community should be. Nevertheless, the Church is part of the fallen world, so we should not expect to find in any unambiguous way the ideal human community in the Church.”    (Introducing Eastern Orthodox Theology, Kindle Loc. 1752-58)

Genesis reveals to us what God planned for human relationships, but the relational nature of humans was based in the human potential to deny the self and to love the other.  This potential was not realized as from the beginning humans instead of practicing the self-emptying love revealed to them by God instead opted for self-love and self-preservation – in so-doing damaged their God-intended relational nature, reducing humans to competing, alienated individuals.   Roman Catholic biblical scholar Elliott Maloney says:

“In this biblical tradition, God created Adam and Eve to begin a great family of human beings who could enjoy a loving relationship with a beneficent God (Gen 1:26-28). This aspect of their being the progenitors of a great clan of humans is very important, because in ancient thinking everyone’s personal reality was deeply embedded in their identity as a member of a group.”  (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 368-71)

So in the biblical texts persons are identified by their genealogies and by the tribe or nation to which they belong.  “Who are your people?” identifies who you are as a person.  Thus, in the Prophecy of Jonah, Jonah attempting to flee from God, hides as an individual on a ship and when discovered must reveal who he is.

Then the ship’s mariners said to him, “Tell us, on whose account this evil has come upon us? What is your occupation? And whence do you come? What is your country? And of what people are you?”

And he said to them, “I am a Hebrew; and I fear the LORD, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land.”   (Jonah 1:8-9)

While today, we might begin answering these questions by talking about our occupation and identify ourselves in economic terms, Jonah’s self-identifying response makes it clear first and foremost to what tribe/people he belongs and what he and those people believe about God.  Scholar Elliott Maloney says the biblical understanding of “self” is different from our modern self-identification which is clear in the writings of St. Paul.

“In Paul’s day people did not think about themselves as individuals, nor did they consider their personal characteristics and limitations as making them ‘different.’ All thinking and moral choice was geared to and dictated by one’s position in a group, be it family, religion, or clan. The accomplishments and failures of the clan head were visited on all the clan members in a way that identified them and conferred on them their reality as human beings. Paul’s explanation of the origin of sin, what we call ‘original sin,’ is based upon this presupposition.”   (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 373-77)

Why Adam’s sin has consequences for us all is not because God is visiting His punishment on all of Adam’s descendants but because as head of the clan of human beings, Adam’s behavior and actions have consequences not for himself alone, but for everyone in his clan. This is considered natural since in the bible all humans are thought of as belonging to some social group.    As a relational being, Adam has a moral obligation to act in a way that took into account the interest of everyone who would ever be in his clan.  The clan leader is responsible for the clan and the entire clan is always affected by the moral decisions and behavior of the clan leader.   His actions thus have repercussions on all who share his humanity.   Adam’s failure to protect his clan and to engage in activities of merely self-interest thus have consequences not only for Adam but for all humans.

[And it should be noted that in Orthodox Christianity at least, Adam and Eve are not commemorated mostly for their ancestral sin and its negative effects on all humans.   They are most noted in our hyms for being those first saved by Christ.  At Pascha, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, perhaps the most common icon of the Feast shows Christ descending into Hades to rescue Adam and Eve.   The salvation of Eve and Adam is celebrated in the hymns of Pascha and throughout the year.  On one level Adam and Eve are responsible for the deaths of all humans (mass murderers!), while on the other hand, they are forgiven and saved as the forefathers of the human race.   Christ undoes all the evil Adam initiates, including bringing about human mortality, and Christ’s restoration of humanity and salvation stretches back in time to the first human as well as forward in history to the last humans who will walk on earth. Even the devastating sin of Eve and Adam which results in the death of all humans is not an unforgiveable sin in our theology!   Adam and Eve are saved, forgiven and restored to a proper relationship with God!   This is the sign of God’s grace, mercy, unwavering and unconditional love.]

Elliot  Maloney continues:

“The truth is that humans are relational beings: they are naturally oriented toward obedience and loyalty to a higher power (Rom 6:16). As we have seen, the way Paul sees it is that human beings were created to be in a loving and obedient relationship with God—nothing less than that. The authenticity and fulfillment of their lives therefore required them to honor this intimacy and thank God for the invitation to share in God’s own being. But since their minds were darkened by that first denial of the sovereignty of God, the offspring of Adam and Eve continued to make wrong choices—from Cain’s murder of his brother Abel to the petty injustices of the village marketplace where dishonesty became the acceptable norm.”   (Maloney , Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 456-61)

The consequences of ancestral sin thus spread to all humans.  So St. Paul offers us a theological understanding of Adam and Christ:

Adam in Hades

Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned— sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sins were not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the effect of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brings justification. If, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. Then as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to acquittal and life for all men. For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:12-19)

Christ restores fallen humanity to its rightful relationship with God.  Now we humans need to understand how to live in this graceful situation created by Christ.  We are to live in love for one another – we are not to imitate Adam, Eve and Cain who rejected love for one another and practiced only self-love.  We are to follow the way of Christ who emptied Himself and loved the kenotic, self-denying love of God.  St. John Chrysostom, ever the moralist, writes:

“God made both you and the other person, and gave you everything in common and in equal measure with them.  How then do you spurn them and rob them of the regard given by God, not allowing it to be in common but making it all yours, rendering them bereft not only of money but of good name?  God granted every person one nature; he regaled them with the same position of eminence, the same process of creation.  That statement, ‘Let us make the human being,’ is shared by the whole human race.  How then do you deprive people of their inherited being, consigning them to utter insignificance, and appropriating to yourself what is common to all?”  (COMMENTARY ON THE PSALMS Vol 1, pp 46-47)

We come back once more to the biblical scholar Elliott Maloney who in commenting on Romans 12  says:

“Christians must be transformed by a new way of thinking humbly about themselves (v. 3). This means always considering oneself as part of the community and acting for the sake of the others, because “we, who are many, are one body in Christ” . .  .  . Notice the use of the plural in Paul’s instructions. True discernment can occur only in the communal context, for the Spirit dwells in the Body of Christ, made up of many members. Individualism is a product of the flesh with its tendency to self-reliance and self-protection, as if the ego were the only guardian of one’s life. The Spirit provides the righteous orientation to make God and one’s fellows the center of meaningful action. As the action of the Spirit in believers conforms them more and more in the image of Christ, their own spirits are “transformed into the same image (of Christ) from one degree of glory to another” (2 Cor 3:18).”  (Saint Paul, Kindle Loc. 2018-25)

Next:   Humans as Relational and Communal Beings (II)