Life as the sum of relationships

Posted in Blog, Christianity

Has the lockdown made you reflect on the importance of friendship, our relationships to one another? One man who thought deeply about this was Mandell Creighton who succeeded Frederick Temple as Bishop of London in 1897. Temple said of Creighton, ‘For sheer cleverness Creighton beats any man I know’. It is possible that this was an ambiguous compliment, with an implication that Creighton lacked some human qualities. We can’t be sure what was going on in Temple’s mind. But he was not alone in admiring Creighton’s cleverness: Lord Rosebery, a former Liberal Prime Minister, said of him that he was ‘perhaps the most alert and universal intelligence that existed in this island at the time of his death’.

I love the reply Creighton made to a friend who wrote to him saying, ‘I have tried for many years now to live without religion, but I don’t feel I’ve made a success of it so far … the only people who know about faith are the people who have felt and do feel it,’ and therefore he asked for Creighton’s advice. In his reply, Creighton asked, ‘What is life? You may say, “It is the development of my capacities, the process of finding a self, of becoming all I can be.” But how is this to be tested? How do I know what I am?’

His answer was that Life is a sum of relationships. ‘I am what I am,’ he said ‘in relation to others: and I know myself by seeing myself reflected in my influence on others, my power of touching their lives and weaving their life and mine into some connected and satisfactory scheme … The Christian claim is that my life, my capacities, my relationships are part of an eternal order running through the universe, beginning and ending in God.’

Creighton argued, as did Temple, that the greatest proof of the truth of the Christian faith is that Christian truth matches the condition and needs of our human nature. ‘Our life is the development of our personality … One man with many gifts which can be recognised is somehow still unattractive and ineffective. Another, less richly endowed, whose qualities cannot be separately appraised so highly, is much more influential and obviously leads a richer life. Why? Because he is more of a person, is more consistent, has a central source of power. We may call this personality …

‘God could be known in nature, in conscience, in history; but if He is to be thoroughly known, He must be known in a person. So Christ stands as the central fount of personality, who explains, not my gifts, my attainments, my knowledge, my capacities, but me and that which lies beyond these, uses them and gives them meaning and coherence. So He stands, the Sustainer of all men: and I am led to Him by all my experience. What makes me in this world? My relations to others. What cheers me? The belief that some at least love me. What gives me any value in my own eyes? The sense of my influence over, and usefulness to, one or two of those who love me…

‘Relationships, founded on a sense of lasting affection, are the sole realities of life. This is obvious. It is the burden of all literature. It leads straight to Christ. Faith is personal trust in a person. Christianity does not call upon me to commit myself to something contrary to my experience.’ In my relationship to Christ  ‘all my other relationships find their meaning and their security.’ Replying to another correspondent, and making similar points, Creighton recommended reading John’s gospel: ‘Read it and weigh it. Consider the view of life which it contains.’