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Not an island, entire of itself

05 January 2024

Mark Vernon looks at a new book on relationships which points to the importance of joint thinking and action


RELATIONALITY is in vogue. The proposal that we are, at root, isolated individuals making insular decisions based on reckless self-interest has been tested and found wanting. Homo economicus is out. Homo socialis is back.

The shift to the mutual is being urged on a number of fronts. There is the reaction against social media, and a future in which AI locks us ever more tightly to screens. There is the discussion about the best ways to treat mental ill-health, which tend at base to come down to the establishment of better relationships. There is science itself, which is increasingly inclined to seek the explanatory power of the co-operative, systemic, and networked before the blind mechanical functionality of selfish genes.

The New York Times columnist David Brooks is a supporter of this change of mood. His new book, How To Know A Person*, offers a series of well-wrought stories and punchy reflections on relationship-building.

It is packed with tips to try out, from asking better questions than simply “How ya doin’?”, to becoming more conversant with the complexity of your own identity. If you see yourself more deeply, you will see others more deeply, and be seen more deeply. That would be to rise on a virtuous spiral of “reciprocal disclosure”, to borrow the phrase of the cognitive psychologist John Vervaeke.

The practical and experiential becomes positively metaphysical in the work of Iain McGilchrist, the philosopher and psychiatrist. He is becoming increasingly well known for his work on brain lateralisation, and the thesis that the left and right hemispheres perceive the world in radically different ways: the left makes maps and loves focus; the right is porous to others and aware of its blind spots, which makes it the seat of relationality.

Dr McGilchrist is persuaded by the tradition known as process philosophy, which originated with the polymath A. N. Whitehead. According to this world-view, reality itself is fundamentally relational. Connection exists before the things that are connected, because all things are first dependent on the connections for their existence. As Dr McGilchrist captures it: “Relationships are prior to relata.”

All sorts of evidence can be mustered to support the view, from the findings of modern physics, which show that there is no objective “view from nowhere”, because everything is participatory and relative to the social constructionist theories of the humanities. These suggest that everything is a dance or play on what has been before — though Dr McGilchrist is right, I think, to emphasise that not everything is simply made up by us, as if we were the generators of all that has meaning and purpose. Rather, reality is akin to what happens in loving relationships. Each person brings themselves to the encounter and, in that meeting, both discover themselves and, simultaneously, find themselves being discovered, and even remade.

THERE is much to celebrate in this type of analysis. Churchgoers, who have been fed a diet of neighbour love and divine love, might be in the front line of the applause. But a note of caution is worth sounding.

Wherever there are relationships there are also relationships that have broken down. Alternatively, friendships frequently draw on the connecting power of shared enemies to keep bonds strong. Or there is empathy. While it does allow you to step into someone else’s shoes, it also attaches you firmly to a tribe, and strengthens you in the fight against foes.

Similarly, too, knowing yourself better and seeing others more deeply does not automatically create fountains of love. Sometimes, the distance between people is worth maintaining because, in this life at least, happy communion is not possible. There is a reason that liberalism, following the philosophy of John Stuart Mill, argues that individuals should be free to do what they want, so long as they don’t harm others.

I sometimes wonder whether the conflicts of today are prompted, in part, because the world has grown smaller. Sharing, often instantaneously, what is going on with those in the Middle East or Africa may hinder, not help, international relations. Such ease of connection may precipitate a sense of threatening proximity and frightening difference. It might fire, not quell, antagonisms and struggles.

But if the future does not look particularly bright, neither need it look relentlessly gloomy. For Christianity has something to augment the understanding of relationality and its power. It has an often forgotten and possibly transformative additional insight. I become increasingly convinced that the message of Jesus was not, at heart, moral — as if summed up in an instruction to love God and neighbour. Rather, that love is the fruit of a deeper root, which is a revelation of the nature of reality itself.

The revelation is that reality is not fundamentally relational, but that it is Trinitarian. This is not the type of Trinitarianism that typically I hear preached — the social version, as if there were three persons in heaven who get on unbelievably well, and so are a model to us all. Rather, this is about the ontological Trinity, and a way of speaking about the whole that is revealed when we creatures are in good relationship. There is a tertium quid, or more elusive “third thing”, to discover and know. There is a unity within the dynamics of relationship, which is the fundamental nature of all that is.

It might be thought that bringing the Trinity into a discussion of relationships is a little recherché or esoteric, even in a Christian context. But, when reflecting on the nature of relationships, the Trinitarian pattern can be seen.

At one level, and in quite quotidian ways, it is pointed to by the emergence of unexpected outcomes, which is a common feature of collaborative friendships. The best groups are made up of people with various abilities and diverse temperaments. Through a process of co-operation and conflict, coupled to a frame that enables the former to survive the latter, work can be done that was simply not possible without the combined effort. This mode of discovery is the opposite model to the heroic approach, which assumes that a solitary genius has the keys to unlock problems.

A COMPARABLE dynamic was the goal in the medieval way of assessing a doctorate. The mode of inquiry called disputatio brought together the student and the master, although the aim of the exercise was not primarily to test whether the student knew his stuff: it was also to expand the perceptions of everyone present. In a disputatio, various questions would be explored with a playing and riffing that kept the subject open and alive, before building to a climax of silence.

The one speaking, and those listening, then touched the majesty of a realisation of that which lies behind all that had been said. The doors of perception would have been cleansed by the exchange, to recall William Blake’s phrase, revealing a source or wellspring that is above, within, and beyond.

I am a psychotherapist, and I like to think that the practice can also be placed in this tradition. One of the distinguishing features of psychotherapy, when compared with approaches such as cognitive behavioural therapy, is the offer not only of a reflective space and insights that might support the individual through a tricky patch — psychotherapy also treats the difficulty as a signal that something as yet unconscious might be heard.

Part of the psychotherapist’s task is to listen out for an intuition or presence that might not directly help the individual get back to normal, but could, if pursued, lead to a transformed sense of life and a wider perception of reality. A third possibility, an unexpected horizon, might be attended to, which, given time, changes everything.

The quest for this third dimension is buried in the yearning for a re-enchanted world, too. A number of facets of contemporary culture suggest that we miss the presence of the numinous and holy that our ancestors knew in their lives. Think of the extraordinarily beautifully filmed TV nature programme that can lift viewers into a veritable trance, or the revival of interest in taking psychedelics, which regularly prompt encounters with odd entities.

What the older world-view knew is that when human beings look on to the world, the world looks back at us. The cosmos is not a drab, meaningless expanse, into which our imaginations strive to inject significance and colour. Rather, as the novelist Sally Vickers has written, “We once inhabited a world that was animate, in which humans were creatures who not only perceived but were themselves perceived. To live in this world meant to live among vital elements that were beyond our human control, that could not be corralled by human will, or predicted or captured by desire.”

Further, as the Greek philosophers and Church Fathers insist, all creatures strive to be known not just because all creatures long for relationship. More deeply, too, when you are known, you can come to know the shared ground of being that all beings share, which is the mind of God. “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there among them,” Jesus says (Matthew 18.20). This is not a magical formula, but an observation: when people share each other’s presence, they also share the divine presence, which is the living fount of their being.

This is the Trinitarian vision. It sees all creation as an emanation of and participation in the divine life. It’s why mystics such as Meister Eckhart can affirm, “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

In relationships, then, we don’t just find companionship and consolation, lovely though those things are. We can discover the horizon from which our shared humanity flows, which is greater than us, as well as closer to us, than we are to ourselves, as St Augustine puts it. If relationship is back in vogue, then maybe that is, in part, because people long to experience this transcendent unity. The full promise is not to know another as other, and hope to bridge the divide. It is to know another as one more manifestation of the glorious divine whole.

*Allen Lane, £25 (Church Times Bookshop £22.50); 978-0-241-67029-3

Dr Mark Vernon is a psychotherapist and writer. His latest book is Spiritual Intelligence in Seven Steps (Iff Books) (Books, 26 May 2023).

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