Relationships and community

The image of God in human beings is both creative and relational. God says, 'Let us make man in our image.' Christian Trinitarian hindsight has relished that 'Let us'. Without naive over-emphasis, one can appreciate Sherwin Bailey's judicious summary: 'Man in the image of God is essentially a "being-in-relation", and human existence is essentially "existence-in-community" ' (Bailey 1959:267). Since Bailey's great book was published, these ideas of 'relation' and 'community' have been much bandied about. They have lost much of their vitality and have become triggers of approval or disapproval, mechanical aids to slogan-thinking. They are no less needed but require care to make them work with any precision.

It is worthwhile to keep struggling with the idea of 'persons-in-relation'. Though the meaning of 'relationship' is elusive, sliding from geometry to sociology, its slipperiness can be put to use, with caution, to illuminate what persons are by making connections between fact and value (Oppenheimer 1973:143-4; 1983:71-3). Likewise it is worthwhile to keep struggling with the idea of 'community'. The trouble is that 'community' has to be a 'Good Thing' and so becomes a too convenient substitute for argument or even a hasty plunge into politics. An appeal to 'community', without precise context, can be used to knock 'individualism' on the head as the characteristic 'Bad Thing' of our times, without specifying what is being meant by 'individual' or what kind of community, 'we' or 'they', is to be given such priority of esteem (Oppenheimer 1991c: 3).

The affirmation that human beings find their true existence in community need not imply that any collective, nation, neighbourhood, family or even Church, has priority over individual people; nor that 'joiners' are better than 'non-joiners'; nor indeed that hermits who abandon human company to seek the vision of God are selfish. What it means is simpler and more basic: that human beings are social creatures, that 'it is not good', nor even possible, for them 'to be alone' They need each other and depend upon each other, even for their very identity (Oppenheimer 1973:136). The kind of individualist who neglects, rejects or tramples upon other people is going against the grain of creation. 'Hell is other people' is perversely wrong: hell is solipsism, the isolation of the ingrowing self.

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